November 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
But Deep Blue defeated Kasparov in chess with only well crafted algorithms and sheer computational force.
And another computer-guided air war cleansed Yugoslavia of ethnic malice.
And Y2K proved not to be the end of the world but just another reason to upgrade our software and equipment, giving the industry yet another push.
And the Internet grew beyond all expectation, taking the stock market with it. Our doubts had been washed away; what held before no longer seemed to apply. We were entering another shift.
We measured information, its mass and movement, and talked in terms of networking and being connected, even those of who were not. Pervasive was the word we used to describe computing, which we thought synonymous with the future and saw spreading to fill it. All hardware would be hooked together, everyone to the hardware, and with hyperlinks on the Web, anything to everything. With the spreading we believed our lives transformed in ways that were palpable but had not yet been defined. Or perhaps had moved beyond going from one thing to another and touched the substance of transformation itself.
It was left to us to write the software that would bridge the gaps. The industry called us, really screamed, and we poured in. More than ever the Valley was astir with the buzz of coding, which had taken another step towards transcendence, HTML, XML, Java, and Perl, the languages of the Web, platform independent. We coded not just pages for the dotcoms that came and went, but also helped change the structure of computing, making local networks global. And we wrote the programs that allowed sites to probe and query, and store and retrieve what they got and act on that, and once more updated systems to accommodate the advance in processors and transmission hardware, the cabling and cards and routers, to manage the greater traffic and larger files, the huge databases and files of sounds and of graphics still and moving, of the messages now crossing everyone’s path.
Almost as much and overwhelming as all that we were doing, what we had passed through quickly and left behind, languages scarcely born now dead, solutions and technologies that, with the changes and advances, were now beside the point—so much code, so many ideas, all the words to explain them to ourselves and others in our documentation and books and manuals that had not just become out of date and useless, but might soon be unintelligible.
Yet we had accomplished so much and moved so far so fast. The challenges that once taxed us now seemed pat, and it didn’t seem that anything could slow us down. We were on a curve to diminish complexity and size and distance to next to nothing. While we didn’t know what the future would bring, we knew it would bring something and that whatever this was would surpass even what we had before us now. Not only were certain we would be able to engineer what it required, but also, with all the money that had gone from Wall Street to Sand Hill, that our efforts would get funded. The wonder we now felt was that nothing could move us to wonder.
And we had whole bookstores now, devoted entirely to programming and IT. And computer superstores that sold all makes of computer parts and systems and peripherals and software, and deodorant and junk food at the checkout so we didn’t have to lose time making other stops.
And community colleges now offered night courses on how to manage stock options and program in C++ and Java.
And we now kept our eye on the Nasdaq instead of the Dow Jones.
And everyone seemed to have a plan for something, even those of us who weren’t in the trade, and throughout the Valley there was a lightness in the air—an uplifting, a looking up—that didn’t come entirely from the hope for cash.
As for me, I saw the collapse of Summit and loss of employment not as a failure but just another step, the destruction that precedes creation, part of the process. But I was ready for some rest. I was tired but not worn down, just in need of recharging. Also it was time catch up with the family. So I stayed home, and to stay sharp went back to writing games and utilities and odds and ends, but now for web sites, contract work for which the owners were paying big bucks. Better work would be waiting for me when I was ready to jump back in, and, because of my experience with Summix, I had the self-assurance I could do it.
And we were getting connected, more and more of us, consumers to small retailers as well as to the chains; patients to dentists and chiropractors, the HMOs; readers to library catalogs, the Library of Congress; kids and parents to teachers, PTAs, and state boards K-12; uninformed voters to newspapers and political campaigns and government agencies, local, state, and national; the unemployed to work throughout the US, and beyond.
And it no longer mattered who we were or where we were, independent parties or less known authors or independent presses or grass root movements or self-help gurus or consumer advocates or priests and pastors and rabbis, because there wasn’t anywhere anyone couldn’t find space on a server or where whoever followed them could not be reached.
And we extended the links further out, coordinating our mailing lists and research and inventories and suppliers overseas to match supply to demand, to target buyers and undecideds and unbelievers so we could better persuade them to accept our products and promises and views, or just tell them what they needed to buy or believe or know, or could adjust ourselves and tailor what we offered to better fit their needs, or simply give them what they wanted, and do all this in time that was almost real.
And meshed them further in so we could quickly spread the word to get all of us in the office or church or party on the same page, or pass it down from the top to keep us all in line. Or we could form our own groups within the group and bypass the chain of command and those around us.
Or we could cut loose from the group entirely and form our own companies, parties, and sects, and host them on the Web.
And there were sites to link sites across, with search engines that scoured the Web to feed them, that gave access to the sites that had what we needed to buy and believe and know. And sites to link them up and down, that gave market quotes and analysis and the home pages of investment houses and of the firms whose stocks we bought and sold, or that checked prices against all sellers of a book, or that gave reality checks to campaign speeches and consolidated research on global warming and offered us different slants on events with articles from papers in Albuquerque, New York, London, and Beijing.
And if we weren’t satisfied with what we found in those we could still break free and start our own sites, and build them across or up and down, or slice them anyway we wanted—
But now our pitcher, the coach’s son, raises both hands, glove and ball, to his chest. Runners scratch leads, the batter digs in and coils, our fielders, on their toes, do the stutter dance, that fine, back-and-forth movement—all tuning themselves to probabilities and means and meanings, to the odds of where the ball will go, and to their ability, what they can do with it from there, and to what they are supposed to do according to techniques and the definitions of their positions and set plays, to these and to ways they might break free of them in improvisation with sudden charges or dashes back or dives left or right or upward thrusts, the field a lattice charged with plays, tense with possibilities not yet discharged, conclusions not yet concluded, playing themselves out and back into themselves and out with trajectories and connections and flying leaps, now.
And now he takes his arm straight back, exactly the simplistic way they are taught in Little League handbooks, but the way he does it strikes an Attic pose. I doubt he is even thinking about the score.
Or this may be all there is, or all that matters, just to reach this level, this tone of alertness and control, and try to maintain it. Results, either way, are side issues.
Now he pushes off the mound and lets go.
Now the ball comes to the plate, sinking below the batter’s knees.
Now the batter swings and tops it—another grounder to short, who scoops it cleanly and trots across second for the final out.
Now, once again, the mound and field are clear.
Bottom of the fifth coming up, and Allen will appear at the plate.
I have no idea where faith comes from or on what it should be based.
I also can’t figure out what Allen has gotten from me.
What I most can’t decide is if Allen has a problem, and if he does, what it is.
He’s a sweet kid, much more considerate than I ever was, though I fear that much of his kindness comes from timidity and dependence. While he can make my heart stop when he jumps from curbs on his skateboard and his bike, he often seems at a loss, waiting for a word from me, though seldom takes it. He has shown flashes of talent, with his head and with his arms and legs, but they disperse before they turn into anything. And he seems more anxious, yet isn’t fazed by the things that once haunted me, late at night. I don’t even know if he is happier than I was, or less.
Baseball was his idea. I’m not sure where he got it.
His teachers praise him for his spirit, but then say he’s easily distracted. One referred us to the school psychologist, who dropped the hint of ADHD, raising the specter of Ritalin. There have also been chest complaints, nagging though not serious, but that his pediatrician says may be pre-asthmatic and may or may not go away. He prescribed Abuterol nonetheless, still sitting on the shelf. I think he was just covering his bases, like that teacher and the shrink. Lots of kids wheeze and fidget, and while there is a lot of stuff floating around—pollen, exhaust, other junk, and a host of mental irritants—there is also the desire to pin down precise conditions, the need to make specific, powerful, and expensive drugs to treat them. Marilyn and I have done our best to avoid the hard names and strong cures because we know with them come side effects and stigmas. He seems healthy enough to us, and his agitation may just be energy waiting to land.
Because Marilyn and I are not self-absorbed or just as bad self-sacrificing, or even worse trendy. We do what makes sense to us, and when we aren’t sure, try to have the sense to hold off. We neither spoil nor deprive. We don’t do everything for him, nor throw him in the water and tell him to swim. We show, we urge, we nudge, but let him take over from there. We know it is his life he has before him, not ours, and don’t want him to look down from an aerie of ego or view it from beneath a pit of guilt, much less only skim it off the top.
And it isn’t that we haven’t found the time. When he was born Marilyn insisted on taking extended leave, then let her job with Montevista go and gave Allen full time. First things first, she said. If she couldn’t set her priorities at home, how could she set them for a town? Montevista could wait. His first years, flex time at Summit gave me late mornings and I was home for nights. Nor did I shrug the changing, the feeding, the waking up in the middle of the night, the things our fathers thought beneath them—a mistake, because doing these remind you what a kid is and as well as what you’ve put behind, the other side of reason, and help you appreciate the years that follow. Work had taught me that sleep could be condensed and moved around.
My years at Summix were a strain, but I found some slots and Marilyn filled in without complaint. When Summit bottomed up and I took work at home, I could arrange my schedule around him, a better time for me now that he was talking and moving around and I could find things to do we both understood. By then Marilyn was ready to return to the world and was welcomed back at Montevista part-time, later full, so we took shifts so one of us was always with him. And all along we had the devices to stay connected, a monitor in the crib, emails back and forth from work, and cell phones we took everywhere, but we didn’t bypass our presence with him, our touch. All told he got as much attention as I did, maybe more. Now I wonder if he got too much.
Still, there were gaps, and sometimes when I look at him, I wonder who he is.
Then there is the problem of the only child. We were putting off the second until our careers solidified and we felt settled, or this is what we told ourselves, but maybe one was what we really wanted. And at first, there were no kids at the townhouse complex where we lived, then a place where singles, couples started out. We went to daycare as a last resort just to find some other kids, but he took to it immediately and it became a second home. When real estate went berserk, other families settled for townhouses and kids roamed our narrow streets. When we divorced, I moved into a rental at another complex, almost identical, so both homes would look familiar. Allen has made friends at both, though, like their parents, they come and go. But he has always been able to pick up where he leaves off with an adroitness that should serve him well later on.
He runs with the pack and fits in, though with what I’m not sure. I’ve started watching the older kids to get a sense of what he’s approaching now, although it’s hard to get a fix on kids whose response to difficulty is “whatever” and sole way of describing desirable behavior is “normal”—something I usually am not. The little things that once made all the difference to us don’t seem to matter any more. As for the larger, with the ethnic mix at school and the neighborhoods, acceptance is not an ideal but a given. I’m not clear what distinctions they do make, even for the better. At least as to status, who’s on top, they seem to be indifferent, and while they haven’t learned that whatever puts one there may be suspect, perhaps they have been up and down with us enough to realize position is provisional. This is sane.
Like us they dress down, the kids even further, for the same reason, I suppose, a rejection of convention in favor of comfort, though we don’t have that much custom now. Or maybe they see the pretense in our look, as we aren’t always at ease, and our stabs at comfort may be what they reject. They flaunt what they flout with oversize sweatshirts whose sleeves cover hands, and baggy pants that slip at their hips, show undershorts, and trail the ground, dressed in which they walk in a flopping display of loose encumbrance. Also hip-hop, or its latest mutation, whatever style has filtered its way up from rap and inner cities and can be grasped by suburban mood. I hear its thumping bass from Allen’s room, on our placid streets. I don’t know what our kids are reacting against, though, and am not sure they do either, which may be the reason their rebellion, if it is one, lacks passion. Nor are they that relaxed themselves. At any rate, all I see for certain in Allen is the flop and his shorts.
Not against school, which they take seriously, or at least do not question, which has taken on an urgency, beyond assault. Yet in spite of all the money here, state budget woes keep it on the edge. His has ongoing campaigns for music, sports, and art; his teachers ask we donate supplies. The campus itself looks third world, with its crowded classrooms, the stark temporary buildings that hold them and have been around long enough to show decline. Still, as ever, school smells of institution, yet unlike mine is charged with purpose. Education has taken on meanings with capital letters, and he has to compete with the offspring of industry brains here and from around the world, with the sons and daughters of Asia, for many of whom education is the primary track for making it, or for others just a means of survival, or for a few a way into Stanford, their single source of salvation—before all of whom our work ethic pales.
He’s well ahead of where I was in math at his age, to which neither of us see the point. Homework in his other studies is piled on. While his teachers promote hands-on, it’s hard to see the subject past all the procedures he has to follow or divine the sense of the systems that lie behind them. I get headaches trying to sort out all he has to do, all the forms he has to fill out, where he has to keep them or when he has to turn them in. Handouts are scattered everywhere at both his homes. Education meeting the demands of our advanced society, the industry of our Valley, I suppose, or maybe his teachers are just trying to justify all the attention they have received and maybe have gone off course, maybe could use some pills themselves. Yet they are laid-back and committed, and encourage the kids to find themselves, think for themselves, and question what they see. He’s learning now all the things my school prettied up or ignored. And he should develop discipline and mental toughness, as well as have something worth thinking about later on. In spite of the load and the concerns about his attention, Allen fends for himself well enough and should be ready if anything takes hold.
He shows no interest in following in my footsteps, in fact hasn’t given any thought to what he wants to be when he grows up, which doesn’t bother me at all. It is too soon. He has enough before him now, just being a kid, and whatever he does later should come from what he discovers there. Our technology itself means little to him beyond what it does, but he has little skill and no patience with it, aside from the tube and his PS2. His computer is a perpetual mess from all the Web throws at kids—games, chat rooms with other kids from all over, pictures of anything he might desire, the miracles of free offers, big prizes, contact with the stars—and what these hide—freaks, scams, hardcore porn, adware, spyware, incompatibilities, and viruses. His email address belongs to the world and he’s given up trying to read all that it returns. He has several pages of passwords, to what he has no idea because he doesn’t keep track. When he logs on, he just creates another password and new identity, then adds these to the list.
That he might have some control over his machine and the world hasn’t sunk in, no matter how many times I purge and reinstall his system and try to teach him how to protect it and himself. I suppose it’s still too early, but many of his friends have already learned the knack. To him, what he does is what he does; what happens just the way things work, part of some natural chain of things, not to be doubted. His innocence is refreshing, though also a little scary. I’ve since come to wonder, however, if the path of least resistance may not be the best course. At least it leaves rooms for hope.
Besides, technology isn’t everything, it is nothing but a means, and other means exist. But if there is anything out there that he wants to grasp, caress, wield, or stack, or take apart and try to put back together and call his own, I haven’t seen it.
Perhaps what has worked for me won’t work for him because his world is different and will require a different tact. And much changed, I think, those years I was secluded at Summit. Then again, you don’t fully see the world until you look at it through the eyes of a kid, and when I started doing so I wasn’t sure what kind of world it was.
It is frightening all that technology lets in, all that he has seen that we were sheltered from or simply didn’t know about because even our parents we were not told. My concern is not that he can’t distinguish between virtual and real when he stares at the screen—news glitter, flashes of war and disasters, and the glitzy monsters he blithely destroys in his video games, it’s getting harder for all of us to tell the difference—but that he takes both for granted and is not especially wowed by either. Yet he hasn’t lost sight of what is wrong or mean or gross, of how real people—parents, other kids—should be treated. He’s a decent kid. Still I worry about the effects from all this exposure, where the habit of inuring might leave him later.
What I regret more, however, is that we have no place to turn him loose. There are parks and our neighborhoods are safe, but in them kids do not play unless we arrange it. The world outside the complex is unknown to him, and in many ways to us.
His lungs, his spirit—Allen is not alone. He tells me a lot of kids may or may not have similar problems of mind and body that we never knew or even heard of, problems much worse. Other parents talk about them as well, but only to the extent they can be fixed, not what they might represent. It’s hard not to believe that the problems, if they are problems, are ones we have created ourselves by trying so hard to find and fix them. Or maybe the world has changed and the problems are real. Or maybe we weren’t that OK as kids. Maybe we just covered problems up back then and suffered without knowing it, and now have simply taken off the lid.
I like to think that I am calm and reasonably well adjusted, but what I most do is worry. I worry that I haven’t done all that I need to do, I worry that I have done too much. Most, I worry because I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Maybe I am part of the problem, because I worry too much when everything is fine, the way it is supposed to be, or at least is as well as it’s ever been.
But all told, we have adapted, and Allen has more in place than I ever had. Maybe our only shortcoming is that we haven’t given him enough to react against or been the kind of parents he could hate, at least provisionally, so he can find himself. Yet we have offered him what most counts, the freedom to be whatever, whoever he wants to be, and provided the tools to achieve this. Yet I as stare at him in the dugout, at his face, full like his mother’s, an open, soft circle that approaches serenity but also deflects and hides and could just as easily be a rounding out of fear, I doubt he is thinking about his appearance at the plate, much less anything that might happen after.
He has my heart, all of it, but I feel from here on out I will only be watching him from the sidelines. I don’t know what to expect from a ten-year old, if anything is to be expected. I realize don’t know much about Allen. I don’t know much about kids at all. I do know, however, what will happen if nothing takes, that he will be a lamb for slaughter.
The catcher’s mitt has been smacking loud and hard during warm-up, a slow, deliberate pounding, like a howitzer sending shells into the night.
It is what Allen will have to face.
New pitcher for the Dodgers, who seems to have taken inspiration from Shiva’s performance as well, but translated his mystery into unequivocal power, ominous and final. He’s a heavy kid, but whose fat covers strength and he puts his weight behind the ball. Yet he has a friendly, open face that only says all he’s doing is giving it all he’s got, and he does so without malice or preconception. His face, along with the bowl of sandy hair on top, makes me want to think he might be a descendent of farmers in Iowa or, more likely, the Sacramento Valley, though I don’t know anything about those parts nor am sure what remains to be known. Still, there is something decidedly all-American about him, forceful but unassuming, which reassures in one way but disturbs in another.
Now he is done, and now he waits. He slugs his glove and blows a puff that shakes the loose flesh of his body.
Our first batter leaves the dugout and walks to the plate blinking, as if he’s been out of the light for some time. We cheer him on, but only as polite parents who curb their expectation. It’s late in the game, we’re down in the order, and it’s time for the subs to hit.
He’s a tall, gangly kid who makes you want to say lank. His face shows defiance but lacks conviction, and his practice swings have the action of some spindly machine from the past. There is something decidedly all-American in him as well, as he shows traits that plant him somewhere between our shores and, before that, to something indeterminately Irish and/or Scotch and/or northern European. Instead of being unassuming, however, he is merely awkward.
It isn’t the kind of thing we think about much, being American, not because of the adjustments we’ve made to accommodate all the recent immigrants with whom we work and live, but because of what those of us who grew up here left behind ourselves, what we have before us now. Yet the scene—a baseball field cleared in our midst, kids and parents gathered in common diversion, the atypical prototypes, Bear and Stretch squaring off—is inescapably American, whatever that is. It almost suggests a Norman Rockwell illustration, one that pushes no large meanings and says all it has to say with graceless charm, except that these kids are dead serious and show real nerves, and such sentiment, no matter how many concessions we make for our kids, is not one we can allow for them, or ourselves, as I’m sure we couldn’t back Rockwell’s time, either.
“Heave it, Harry!” A poet in the Dodger stands.
And he does, and it’s a hard pitch down the middle, one that you can hear.
But Stretch uncoils with a surprisingly fluid swing, extends his arms, and follows all the way through, sending the ball over the center field fence with just a quick crack.
Loud cheers from our stands, openhearted and unqualified, which continue while Stretch circles the bases, biting down a grin, and they don’t stop after he disappears into the dugout. 4-2, but it’s not just that the odds have changed and the game might be in reach, that he may have gotten something started. A spell has been broken elsewhere, possibilities have been freed, the unexpected become seemingly natural, all because of a bit of luck and a principle of simple mechanics.
But we subdue ourselves for the next sub and modulate our shouts into gentleness to encourage him, a small kid, smaller and younger than Allen, who looks like he is thinking backward as he moves forward to the plate. His uniform doesn’t fit, the batting helmet wobbles on his head, and his arms are too short and thin to work any leverage. His matchup with this pitcher even biblically seems too uneven. The field, the game itself look much too big for him, and the way he props the bat on his shoulder and meekly peers towards the mound suggests he isn’t going to swing.
And he doesn’t at the first pitch, still hard and fast, but a little high.
“Good eye! Good eye!”
Which, I’ve heard, is bad advice for kids in Little League who need to get the bat off their shoulder.
The next pitch comes to the same spot and again he just watches.
To the third, higher, he does give a feeble swing, but bat down and nowhere near the ball.
The fourth bounces in the dirt.
The pitcher steps off the rubber, and huffs and shakes, his face a mass of bulky consternation. Maybe he has given some thought to easing up on the kid but is struggling because hard and fast is all he knows, though I doubt it. The homerun has rattled him and he can’t find the kid’s narrow zone.
The third-base coach signals to the batter.
The pitcher slugs his glove again and sets.
The kid backs further off the plate.
“You can do it!”
Norman Vincent appears once more, but what the dad probably wants the kid to do is take and get a walk, which has to be the meaning of the sign from the third-base coach. And he does take, standing straight up with bat limp as the ball races at the level of his eyes. Then he tosses his bat and scoots to first.
Mixed, complex cheers of compromise, because we have praised a kid for doing nothing and are torn in three directions, what we want for our kids, for the team, and for ourselves, here, now, elsewhere, later, noise that does not resolve itself though tones back down to politeness when Allen emerges from the dugout—our last sub.
He walks to the plate slowly, but without hesitation, his face as ever quietly inscrutable, or impossibly withdrawn. Outside the box he takes a few slow, uneven cuts, but they are the swings of loosening up, not what he intends to use when he steps in. I do wonder why he’s batting after the other kid, but I trust the coach’s judgment and can’t decide myself if I wouldn’t prefer to put him back to ease the pressure. Still, batting last is batting last.
The pitcher takes a moment to reload his composure, then slugs his glove three times, breaths deep, and draws inside himself for all he’s got. If he was going easy before, he won’t now.
Allen digs in just off the plate, on his toes, leaning forward, unafraid, not nervous, focused and attuned, all there—yet somehow not. Or maybe he is so full of nerves and fear that they can’t get out but push against his deceptive smooth.
I try myself to search for something within that I might send him through the air to help. I doubt, however, anything can break the circle that contains him. And all I find inside myself is the welter where desire runs into love, where everything is selfish but it is impossible to be selfless, where nothing—pushing, pulling, backing off, or wanting, not wanting, or caring, not caring—can be tempered or put together and any word is the wrong one. Still I have to do something.
“You can do it!” I shout.
The pitcher lets go what he’s got, his hardest pitch yet, high, marginally hittable—
And Allen swings—
A beautiful swing—
His swing has always looked good, but never like this and I don’t know where he got it, a stroke that is lightning fast yet isn’t rushed, where everything is used and nothing is wasted or odd or off, and his head is down, still and silent, above a flexing coordination of hands and arms and body and legs and feet powering into full extension and a complete release that traces an even, sweeping curve that lingers after he follows through and catches his balance at the top—
But he swings several inches below the ball.
Ah-h-hs from parents, genuinely impressed, but also a few sighs. Also some groans from the kids in the dugout. What’s a kid his size doing, swinging for the fence when he should only try to make contact, or, since the pitcher’s struggling, just work the count?
The next pitch is just as hard but higher, and the beauty to his swing here is how perfectly it matches the first, but again has the same result.
Oh-h-hs from the parents, disappointment that inadvertently escapes. Louder groans from the dugout, intended, which the head coach stares down. Allen, however, doesn’t seem to notice.
There is nothing hidden about the sign from the third-base coach. He repeatedly shows Allen short swings and Allen nods, but his blank look suggests the message isn’t getting through. Sternness yields to exasperation as the coach keeps repeating the swing, more to force his point than to make it clear. But then the head coach steps out of the opening to the dugout, calls time, and beckons Allen to come over.
He kneels so he can look Allen eye to eye and puts a hand on his shoulder. He’s probably giving Allen the same message, but does so calmly, with an earnest look that has a kind smile behind it, and I want to believe that while he’s telling Allen to protect, he’s trying to protect Allen at the same time.
Because we have someone who we can trust.
I don’t think Allen heard a word. He does, however, seem to be cycling something as he returns to the plate.
The third pitch, ever hard, but still higher, gets the same swing, exactly like the first and second, but the third repetition turns beauty into ugliness.
Polite parent cheers again, but this time mixed in other ways. Allen doesn’t show anything as he returns to the dugout, where he sits by himself because the other kids have cleared a space.
Now a chorus of cheers, voices of one mind, welcoming the regulars, as top of the order, the third-base coach’s son comes out, who is stopped and has a long talk with his father. Only one out, not much lost, and everything to hope for. I can only think about getting this one over, however, and what I will say to him tonight.
But the pitcher finds the plate and top of the order pops up after five pitches, and what I sense happening but can’t quite see but have seen too often becomes clearer when the next batter works the count but hits a feeble grounder, easily thrown to first, and Allen gets stares from the other kids, which he ignores, or silently endures.
That the little kid just stood there is beside the point. That the last two batters didn’t do anything is beside the point as well. That Allen might be responsible for getting the pitcher on track is relevant but still beside the point. Allen will get blamed no matter what because he was first, because he is unknown, because he called attention to himself. It will take him a long time to work this one off, if he can. Even his coaches, adults who can take the long view, will eventually have to concede what happened here will keep happening, let Allen go, and move on.
As for myself, that he won’t have a chance to redeem himself today doesn’t matter so much, or even that getting a hit the next game will be harder, as what comes later. But still not that, but what I think he’s doing, and it isn’t that he tried to miss the ball but that hitting it was not in his plan. Whether it happens consciously or unconsciously is a moot point. Not that he is embracing failure, but because of what he is creating and giving a gorgeous sheen, a wholeness, roundly complete, from which there may be no escape.
Parents stand and applaud nonetheless, mustering hope for the last inning.
My heart is in my stomach.
Of course there was the divorce.
It was Marilyn who, winter some three years ago, without warning, urged we see a counselor, at the time to save the marriage. What needed saving, I asked. We had survived perhaps the hardest years and, I thought, were closer for the effort. She didn’t disagree. When I asked her what was wrong, she said there wasn’t anything wrong, it was what we had become. When I asked her what we had become, she said that was why we needed to see a counselor.
I balked at first. Though therapy is now part of our routine, I had never gone before not because I was afraid of what might be raised from the depths or that I thought I was beyond improvement, but because I doubted a therapist had kept up with what we barely kept up with ourselves—our work, our lives, their pace, how one played off the other. He would only stir up what I thought I had managed as well as it could have been managed and raise the obvious problems, what lay outside me and was beyond my control but which I felt I kept at bay. Or maybe I was afraid of what was down there in the bowels of my mind, but I couldn’t believe he would know any more about what all the brilliant, tortured minds in the history of our culture had yet been able to figure out. I was content in my ignorance that I was satisfied with my life.
As for the marriage, we had made compromises, but only those that couldn’t be avoided. The sessions would just replace one set for another and in the process open wounds. But I trusted Marilyn, more centered, more sure of herself, and respected her sense, her sensitivity, her ability to articulate the less obvious. Even when she made mistakes she could unearth insights. And if nothing else, it was one of those times where I had to show my trust in her and go along.
My apprehensions lifted, however, when I found that our counselor, a woman, not tortured but genial, didn’t make us dredge up faults and couch them in odd, nasty terms, but simply encouraged us to talk. Therapy had changed with the times. The air had cleared, our cultural plumbing been flushed out; centuries of demons, formless and distinct, vanished. We were given a clean, unthreatening slate to start afresh wherever we had to start.
Also a process to guide where we went from there. While I thought we were good at this, talking, the sessions provided procedures and a formal setting. She put two mats on the floor for each of us, one from which we were to speak, the other, to listen. On the speaking mat, a circle marked off in separate sections to stand and express our thoughts, our feelings, our wants and needs, others to review the evidence of our behavior, past and present, and actions we projected. At the heart of the circle, the issue to address, which the counselor left for us to decide. On the listening mat, areas to ask questions and repeat and acknowledge what the other said. On both mats, a space to review the process itself and see if we were following it, another to take time out.
When we got on mats, Marilyn started screaming.
Not injury, but some emotion that had its pain.
Not injury, but not guilt, because there was no self-reproach.
Not guilt, but not rage but some other kind of passion that had its violence.
Not guilt, not rage, because it didn’t seem to come from anything inside her or was directed anywhere out, but rather was something that filtered through and she gave voice. While I never was the object, at first I withered before its heat. I had never seen her this moved, or heard her so loud. Everything came at once—home, Allen, us, her work. I doubt she planned to say all she said, but once out it kept on coming, maybe catching her by surprise as much as me. I could only stand on the listening mat, but not to listen but try to keep up while our counselor scribbled notes.
Yet it wasn’t as if she had lost control because she moved deftly, in a kind of dance from spot to spot on her mat, stating her thoughts with a conviction that matched the volume of her cries, her feelings with precision and strident delicacy. She was just as definite about what was not wrong, her denials so emphatic that they cut like accusations.
Not me, I wasn’t insensitive, I hadn’t neglected her.
Not my work, not my absorption by the hours, because I wouldn’t be who I was without it, she said, and she was proud of what I had accomplished and was ready to stand behind me, whatever I did next.
Not the ups and downs, not the uncertainty of the industry, not the collapse of Summit, not the transience of the contract work after, because she always wanted to be there for me, hard times as much as soft.
Not money, which anyway then was good enough. Her salary plus the odd work I picked up, which paid very well, keep us in the black. She had enough, she had plenty, she had too much. She didn’t have to drive around town in a Boxster like the others.
Nor had I held her back in her own work with City Planning, in anything, because she knew I was behind her as well. Just as important, I also gave her outs.
Not over Allen, no division about what we wanted or how to raise him. Against my doubts, she showed a faith in him that brought me to tears.
And not cheating, which she mentioned for the counselor’s benefit, not mine. She never questioned me, I never gave her cause to ask. As for her, scarcely the thought, and besides, she added with a firmness that stilled the air, she wasn’t into shell games.
She was so incisive about what the problem was not that I didn’t know what else to conclude other than that the standard issues weren’t relevant in our case, maybe didn’t apply anymore. The closer we tried to move her to what the problem might be, however, the counselor with prompts, I with questions, the further away she went.
A townhouse that wasn’t a house in a neighborhood that wasn’t a neighborhood in a town that wasn’t a town.
A security gate for the townhouse complex that didn’t keep anything out, but through which nothing passed.
A social life that was full and empty.
She couldn’t decide if there were too many people in her life or not enough.
A job in which she was only spinning her wheels.
A valley that was going everywhere and nowhere.
Everything, she said, was full and empty.
And it isn’t that what she said lacked substance, because though the sessions went on for months, she didn’t waste a minute, not even for time-outs to compose herself and regroup. Her denials weren’t left unsupported—what I had done, had done for her, what we had done together—were given long review that would have heartened me if they weren’t so much beside the point. Nor were her assertions left hanging but surrounded by evidence—my friends, our friends, her circle of friends and their endless lunches, what everyone said, how they kept saying the same things, what was left unsaid, what no one seemed to know how to say. How everyone was too busy, how nothing was getting done.
An association for our complex that could only agree on restrictions and bland color schemes for the townhouses and couldn’t look more than a few years ahead to build stronger retaining walls against the hills. How good our schools were, but problems they had I didn’t know, yet how bad they were elsewhere, another reason everyone wanted to live here and our houses cost so much and classes were so crowded and schools had trouble getting teachers and staff because they couldn’t afford the houses. The bonds they had to keep floating to keep the schools going which residents might stop voting for if the economy turned or when their kids grew up—still more off course, yet the more off she went, the more her cries modulated into a purposeful, even burn.
A city that had simply happened, whose open space had been eaten up by housing, whose downtown core was congested by day yet dead at night, its widened boulevards cutting into frontage and only generating more traffic, cars knotting up by all the lights they had to add for cross streets, the corporate high-rises and the clusters of R&D boxes they sprouted bringing ever more traffic as well as pushing rents and forcing out small stores, specialty stores, books and clothes and stationery and music, and cafes and bars and restaurants, and letting the superstores in, not leaving much place to walk and little else to do, buildings whose sterile, reductive architecture, eager to pare down and push ahead had no sense of what it was replacing though there wasn’t that much to replace since paring down and trying to look ahead were what they’d been doing for some time, that only replaced logos with other logos, blank walls with larger blank walls.
There are other cycles we have not tamed, she said.
Substance and also form, or what felt like form, the structures of the ideas she touched, primary uses, secondary uses, mixed uses, and density and diversity and visual order, how these should determine the layout of streets and buildings—she was a disciple of Jane Jacobs, subscribing to a system that housed some ideal yet that was practical and was not fixed or pushed from above but was flexible and came from within, from whatever made people people and where their desires might take them, given the means, the chance, a little vision—these ideas and what their structures contained, or rather what they did not contain since she could only talk about them to the extent that the city fell short of understanding and filling them.
If we can’t get the little things right, she asked, what hope do we have for the large?
Yet since raised, the structures were still structures, containers uncontaining yet which still might hold something worthwhile, because even though she kept going further off I more appreciated who she was, what she knew, was moved by all the things that moved her. In the sessions I could sense another city rising, not of buildings but of spirit, a place where our conflict might be discovered and resolved, where we at least might find ourselves and from there move on.
Ideas, structures—and conditions, states of what fell outside of the ideas but still had to be measured and controlled, conditions and their risks, acceptable and unacceptable, and our tolerances of them, how much they could be pushed. Grungy streets, streets torn up by the cable companies for their cables; smog, noise levels from traffic, sound walls that just bounced the noise around; the two hundred and fifty tons of particulate emissions from the quarries in the hills, the diesel fumes, the noise of trucks that served the quarries, the eyesore of the liquor store where the trucks stopped; the proliferation of wireless service facilities, their obtrusive towers, the increased radio frequency radiation; the difficulty in disposing of old monitors and computers, all the toxic substances that went into their making, where they leaked, in the air, in the ground, in the water, which were left in the Superfund site, acres of land that lay fallow near the city’s center, which had gone to factories outsourced overseas, what they could do to the nervous and reproductive systems, chlorofluorocarbons and glycol ethers and arsine and TCE and TCA.
Everything is connected, she said, but hard to separate and track down.
The taxing of the water supply and power grid; runoff problems from all the development, the chances of mudslides in the hills from winter rain, of an Oakland-sized fire in summer when the hills were dry; the building near, on fault lines, what would happen when the San Andreas slipped again. She tried to discuss trade-offs, health and environmental impact and the cost of maintenance deferred against the need for growth, but stalled—so much that was perhaps marginal, maybe negligible, so much that was not, so much that was uncertain or just not known, no way to calculate the odds or know how together it might all add up or be weighed against what we produced and what it was worth and what we earned, no settled frame of reference.
No time-outs, but also no process checks. If there was a process to what she was doing, I don’t know what it was unless it was exactly the way she did what she did, whatever it was that she was doing. I wondered if her time off from work, while with Allen, might have slowed her down and left her unprepared. Then again it might have given her fresh perspective. And maybe the world had changed that much, that fast.
And maybe process was what Marilyn was trying to escape, because with the ideas and structures and against the conditions, the power and abilities we had to realize, to deal with them, or didn’t, had to be factored in. The city’s general plan was simplistic and naive, its implementation nothing but concessions to development. The people she worked with couldn’t see past procedure. Then again, with the continuing fallout from Prop 13 and the scramble for revenues, concessions and procedure were what kept them going and there wasn’t much time or energy or money left for anything else. Against the plan, the push from the industry to get what it wanted, which it usually did. Not that she was opposed to the industry, which after all defined us and had potential, she just didn’t think we knew what we were doing or even what we wanted. After what I had seen at Summit, I couldn’t disagree. And if she had trouble locating herself and settling on a course, her work hadn’t given her much practice. Still, she hadn’t learned what I had, how bracket problems and build from certainty, which may have been the problem.
I did get impatient, yet I found myself shifting with her—so much she identified that I was unaware of or dimly knew or knew and didn’t think about, so much that I didn’t understand, didn’t know how to understand yet still was there—because my worries over Allen were given specific fears. And she got me looking, inside and out, and left me wondering what else I hadn’t noticed, had taken for granted or simply gotten used to and didn’t question.
Houses divided into apartments for all those pouring in to make a strike; apartment complexes crowded with immigrants, whole families in one and two bedroom apartments, how their rents shot up; the lack of low and middle income housing; the hundred or so homeless who slept under freeway bridges or in the hills or in their cars or who moved from church to church staying in their rotating shelters. The salaries of CEOs, the parties at Larry Ellison’s; the Latinos who gathered early mornings in the parking lot of Home Depot looking for day work, their legality, debates over the legality of their being there, the look on their faces, menacing and expectant.
Because there were larger purposes, which maybe we confused with progress, along with social structures and a simple matter of fairness, which we had left behind. I began to wonder what we had become myself and didn’t have any answers.
But there are several orders of poverty, she said, and she was just as amazed how much those of us who had the money still deprived and abused ourselves.
Workaholics and alcoholics, drug habits I didn’t know about with drugs I thought we had grown out of or new ones whose names I hadn’t heard before. I knew we worked hard, but I thought we had healthy habits. The effects of second, third marriages on kids. Domestic violence in Asian homes, tensions East versus West not exactly ethnic but migrating in that direction. Kids showing signs of stress in the schools and turning up in college with ulcers and depression, an increase is scoliosis. Groups of kids not quite gangs but moving that way as well, some ethnic, some not, a rash of burglaries by one of them in a ranch house spread, the chase of a car thief that ended in his death.
Not urban blight, not suburban sprawl, she said, but some other kind of malaise. Because after all Silicon Valley wasn’t Orange County or South Central, either. She wasn’t sure what it was.
And the more I looked and thought, the more I became disturbed. What I first feared a therapist might stir up instead came from her, questions about what was out there, and what we all might hold inside. No demons appeared, however, rather a widening blur. Yet little of what she said applied to our family. We didn’t have the reactions or show the symptoms others had. Most of what she raised only touched us indirectly, if at all, unless there was something else in the shadows she was struggling to bring out.
Our counselor, however, remained calm start to finish, showing only sympathy and a caring face, sometimes even adding to what Marilyn said. Not that she was passive, because she continued to try to get us back on course, talking about marriage and what made it work, though didn’t say anything we didn’t know or hadn’t tried.
Nor was Marilyn covering up a blind spot or deflecting out from some obsession, any more than she was trying to reduce the world to some narrow conception of herself. I can’t recall her ever standing on the spot on the mat where she was supposed to state her wants and needs. What she was trying to do was see. Because at some point, or maybe all the way through, she did talk about herself, and her self-questioning was intense. But nothing she said amounted to much and still wasn’t relevant. She couldn’t convince us of her faults—or herself—so returned to the matters that pressed.
For the most part, our counselor just let her go. This must be an important part of therapy, just saying things, if for no other reason than to relieve their pressure and get them out of the way—except that it didn’t seem the Marilyn would ever stop.
I can’t decide if Marilyn felt supported in her digression or instead reacted against the therapist’s calm, trying to get her to reflect the gravity of what only she seemed to feel. Only now do I realize that she had nowhere else, least of all work, and not even me, to say all the things that concerned her, that the mats finally gave her a platform and an audience, someone who by training and inclination might understand. I liked our counselor and felt she took an interest, and while I know she had to be clinically distant—not just for us but also for herself, because from all Marilyn said there must have been many others with problems much worse, so she had to do the best she could with the time she had, make the best of what she got and cut her losses, as well as protect herself—it also occurs to me now there’s a chance that there wasn’t much behind her gentle smiles, that she wasn’t that much there for us at all, that we were simply being processed, and this might have been what set Marilyn off.
But what stays with me most from the sessions and redeems all the time spent, and what sets Marilyn apart from all of us, is that I saw she had a kind of vision. Because beyond theories and conditions she added individual perceptions of mood and style that didn’t fit into ideas and couldn’t be measured yet had a place and a design, or could and should have, and beyond perceptions, other bits of pieces of something that should have fit somewhere into some part of the structure she was trying to raise and set against the structure we had where there was so much that didn’t fit.
Monster homes that covered entire lots, privacy complaints from their lowly neighbors; the neighborhood of Eichlers, modern glass houses, the stones thrown by Eichler owners to preserve their Eichler neighborhood; the new housing development that edged a cemetery, the skirmishes over matters of life and death that went back and forth between the two; problems the town had in finding names for parks and public buildings, battles when a name was picked; the demolition of the old train depot, the last landmark of any age; the age of oak trees cut down, the disease that was killing cherry trees; the overpopulation of ducks at Civic Center Park, abandoned cats in our complex; the heavy smell that blew in from Gilroy when garlic was in season, springtime depression, her sense of a spirit of weariness and concession, not seasonal, unspecified; the euphoric fits of the kid next door, the fifty pipe bombs another kid had made to blow up a high school; flight patterns overhead, the ozone layer, space debris, a prehistoric jawbone, Native American, that someone dug up in her back yard, what should be done with it, the chance more bones lay below; the trials of St. Joseph of Cupertino, Joseph the dolt, Joseph the gaper, St. Joseph the flying saint, the patron saint of passengers and pilots, who could be sent into a trance at the sound of a church bell and couldn’t be brought out of it by yelling, beating, or burning by his fellow friars but who rose and floated in the air in ecstasy, faith in whom was brought to us by Spanish explorers on their way to the Port of San Francisco and after whom a creek was named as well as our neighbor, Cupertino, home of Apple, Compaq, Portal, and HP, tales of the exploits of their explorers, of the flights of their saints—
She said more, much more, but it’s impossible to remember everything because I never grasped the structure of what she said. I couldn’t tell what went with what, and any order that I give it now is not the order in which it came. She may simply have gotten lost in all she felt needed to be said, but it’s possible that I was the one who couldn’t trace the thread. It’s also possible there was not a thread to trace. But it is too easy and simply wrong to say that she became uncontained herself, because what remained intact throughout, amid the scatter, was the coherence of her heart. I want to believe, I do believe that there is more to understand about her, because what I saw in her I haven’t seen in anyone else. What this is, however, I’ll never know. It is something else I will have to put aside.
But while we have to respect the things we do not understand, at some point we have make a choice, even if we’re not sure what we are doing. Then and there some decision had to be made. While nothing she said amounted to anything serious, I realized there wasn’t as much going for the town as I had thought. There had to be better places to raise Allen, and whatever was disturbing Marilyn might materialize and get worse if we stayed. I proposed that we move. I could find something else to do.
How? she shouted.
The change would be too hard on me, and on Allen.
Is anything that better, that different anywhere else?
We have all we need here, the resources, the best minds in the world.
As for herself, she had more in her life than she ever thought she’d have.
As for Montevista, she called it home.
What was not brought up in the sessions was passion itself, but here we had a silent understanding. We didn’t need to talk about what can’t be talked about anyway, what gets diminished when you try to look at and explain it, and lost when comparisons are made. I only know we had it, that when we put it aside it came back when we were ready. There was, however, the passion of the sessions, like the other, an abandon, a selfless, senseless fracturing that might have made us whole, the passion of the fervent talk, intense in its indirection, a gorgeous flame that burned for months, bright, clarifying, and pure. I hoped that something would come just from it, this passion, that it would scorch through nonsense and take us past words into light. Because I was moved by this passion, and my love for her grew ever stronger, and had taken turns I wanted to explore. But what braced me wracked her, what it built up in me in her got destroyed. And it was a passion that only existed in the counselor’s office, on the mats, that had seemingly created itself from itself by itself, which had its own momentum and ran its own course—and consumed itself in the process. Though we had no reason to end our marriage, after three months there was nothing left to sustain it. Our love was gone and the only option that made sense was divorce.
Our counselor pulled out a fresh pad, and we stepped our way quickly through the details. We did try separation, but nothing changed and we decided we should get it over as soon as we could before Allen got older and further on in school. The only time lost was the year spent convincing our lawyers to do what we wanted.
I insisted she keep the house, of course, for all the standard reasons. But I also wanted her to be there for the first blooming of the wisteria she planted when we moved in, which she had trained to cover the entire back wall.
We discussed at length how to break the news to Allen. We knew he wouldn’t understand, and he still must hold questions inside he doesn’t know how to ask. Yet he has taken the divorce in stride, as he has everything else, part of the course of things, the way they work. I know I couldn’t have handled it as well. At least he is not alone. Half the parents of his friends are divorced as well.
Really, though, in many ways our lives are not that different. We still work together as smoothly as before. And we talk all the time, though only about Allen.
I have no idea how she is.
I have many times since tried to look at myself and consider what there is about me that might have been a problem but which she would not say. Everything comes to mind, and nothing. In love it is impossible to know what matters, or what side of the ledger to put it on, or how to reach the bottom line. But I had to make a decision and only had one choice, to make the cut and move on. I went through that blackout everyone has, but now feel I am coming out of it and can see possibilities emerging, can think of starting over, am starting to imagine who might take her place—
Winters, the wisteria was a vast mesh of dead vines, but in spring would burst madly into leaves, its vines spreading further, clinging, lacing, reaching. I wondered if its name was related to insanity, but found this was not the case. Still, the word sticks with me and sets a tone, a new term that defines something I am trying to grasp, one formed by a combination of wistfulness and hysteria.
I have nights when I lie not awake but am not dreaming but am conscious without being conscious of anything other than something processing itself endlessly without processing itself into anything, or anything yet, whole and perfect in what it doesn’t process itself into, yet, but I don’t dream but lie charged by how much isn’t there, yet, so much that towers out of sleep and soars into the night and through and past it and am terrified or exhilarated or both or neither—
Our coach’s son is in trouble.
He gave up a bloop hit to the first batter, but struck the second out. Yet the third batter hit a line drive to right center that put men on the corners, then the next worked the count and, after fouling off several pitches, connected hard and drove in a run. One out, men again on first and third, down 5-2, the heart of the Dodger order coming up. What our homerun last inning put within reach last inning has taken another step away and looks to flee.
At least Allen still hasn’t seen anything out in left, a blessing against the odds, given all the right-handers strong enough to pull the ball. He still seems alert, watching, moving with the play, and has remembered to cover third, though done so timidly. The odds, however, are set to break, and here, in this context, and after his strikeout last inning and its reception, a botched chance would only put another latch on the prison of childhood.
But all our attention is on the pitcher, yet as we focus on him we are silent and withdraw, as our encouragement would be out of place. Even his father clamps down on a lip and shows a crack in his reserve, an anxious twist.
It isn’t that he’s lost his stuff, but that it just isn’t working now. Nor has he lost his courage, or his determination, or maybe his incipient faith, but his confidence he brackets and holds in suspension. Because there is nothing to ground it in when his only task now in life is to hold on, and maybe keep the faith, if he has it.
November 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Late in his career, Freud, our god of psychic disturbance, had concerns as to whether or not we as a species were going to make it. Our instinct to assert ourselves, along with our tendency to self-destruct, he feared, was greater than any reactions we might form to divert the urge, than any concessions civilization might toss us in its desperate attempts to keep us all together.
Indians for centuries feared a god of death and destruction. But they worshipped him openly, calling him Shiva, the auspicious. Rationalization, maybe—flattering him thus put a positive spin on what would happen anyway, maybe gave a cover for their own disruptive desires. But they saw him as the force behind creation: through destruction we might be born again. And it was Shiva, ever alert in his eyes and below, who struck down Apasmara, the demon of insanity, and danced upon the prostrate body, blissfully waving his four arms in air.
Our second winter in winterless California, ’91, while Marilyn was city planning with Montevista and trying to figure out what made Silicon Valley tick, while cruise missiles blissfully homed in on Baghdad and turned its night sky into floral splendor, finding their targets with a program that compared downloaded satellite maps with what cameras in their noses told them, I was madly writing drivers for a company that made network cards. A year later, while Allen was in the offing, I dove into Summit, a firm that made an operating system for networks themselves, a system that ran a server and managed the connection of PCs into local networks and local networks to each other, and, when the Internet burgeoned, networks to the world. We were developing the power to connect any point A with any point B: the world was within our digital grasp. Some good had to come out of getting it to talk to itself, in sending files instead of Tomahawks. Distinctions, however, have a way of breaking down.
But any ambition not only has to follow method and be tempered by means, but also face facts. In programming you not only have to know how to take all the small steps needed to reach a simple goal, but also find ways to direct traffic, resolve differences, and bridge gaps—create an interface—simply to let messages go through, and do so within what you and the machine can handle. On top of this put a face that a user will recognize and know how to use.
Then you have to factor in what happens when the logic of a program meets the logic of the world.
To write a program for the machine, you have to understand its resources and know how it runs its tasks, know its workarounds and find ways to work around them. And know not just the process, the execution of lines of code, the flow of data in and out, its storage and retrieval, but also how to manage interruptions when a user taps a key, another program, another machine calls. To be a programmer of the machine, you have to focus and keep track, stay beneath the ceiling of its logic, walk within the corridors of the process. And know how to manage your resources and handle disruptions and push distractions aside, but also push walls and find shortcuts with your energy, if you can. And you have to look ahead, to how well your program might face the future, to the time you have to face the fact that it has become obsolete, as well as look back, making sure your program is compatible with what has come before, and still keep an eye on the present, the machine’s current system, the programs with which it has to run. But you also have to look at what you have in front of you, now, and make time stop, now, freeze your program to debug it, stepping through it line by line and seeing what each returns, where it goes afoul, stop yourself to find what you may have missed running down your line of thought. What it most takes is a straight head and long patience, every now and then a flash of insight.
To write a program for the machine when its processor’s speed is doubling every few years and its memory and storage growing just as fast, when the buses that pipe data and instructions between memory and storage and processor are getting wider, faster, and its system is getting larger, faster, and the files it has to store and pass, graphics and databases and text, larger, and the other programs it runs more capable, larger, faster, and the devices, the other machines that connect to it more capable, faster, and the interruptions from all these are growing even faster—you have to come to terms with speed and size and conflict. To be a programmer for a larger, faster, more capable machine, you still have to manage and still push aside and still push yourself, but manage and push more, faster, push the size of what you know and manage to retrieve it, push faster to write more lines of code that tell the faster, larger machine what to process and store and retrieve, still have to focus and keep track, but focus and keep track of more paths, longer paths, of the multitude of possible crossings of piled on bits of simple logic, keep track and handle all the breaks, the interruptions, and still find shortcuts but also watch for detours and dead ends and be prepared for the unexpected when a dash down a straight corridor leads to an inexplicable crash. And still look forward, to the future, to obsolescence that approaches faster, and back to a past that recedes just as fast, and ever keep an eye on a present that seems to keep time with the processor’s accelerating beat, yet still stop time and debug, and stop and go more often, and stop and go faster, stop and keep debugging and revising and running and debugging and revising and running until you see your way through a stuttering now—or stop and throw everything out and start from scratch when your workarounds don’t work and keep starting over until they do. Along with a straight head, patience, and an occasional insight, needed are a few breaks.
To write a program for the larger, faster machine when its faster, larger chips and drives are getting cheaper, when anyone can make a clone and the market is suddenly flooded with cheap machines that everyone is buying and connecting, when the faster more capable devices are getting cheaper, when other software firms are turning out programs left and right that any and everyone would want to buy for their larger, faster, more capable cheap machines and devices, giving them the simple interface, point and click, and loading them up with features to point and click, then rushing them out to steal the march while Redmond is breathing down all our necks—you have to plan for chaos. More than ever you have to focus and keep track, more pick up speed and manage size and handle all the interruptions that come from all the other programs and devices, but also manage what you can’t keep track of, what comes from all the hands in the making, your team that has grown larger to make the even larger program, which, since larger, has become more incompatible with what comes from all the other hands that make the other programs with which you have to run, and more have to take shortcuts as well as make cuts and push aside what should be kept but can’t be figured out and settle for bottom lines. And then there is the world, less certain yet more sure of itself, its programs, its needs, its desires, its halls and crashes, and what can be cut and saved from those, what comes from all the things users can do, want to do with your program when they point and click, from all the ways they can screw up, and what comes from the guys who run your firm, the calls from management, their desires, their demands, their bottom lines, all the ways they can screw up, their proprietary maneuvers to make your program different, more special, and thus more difficult and incompatible, their deadlines to steal the march that come from nowhere and don’t give you time to design your program or test what might happen when users point and click all there is to point and click, the calls from marketing eager to give users something to point and click, anything, everything they might want to point and click so they won’t want to point and click your competition’s programs, that one more feature demanded at the last minute that you rush and throw in and that brings the ceiling crashing down. As ever do you look, but to a future that races towards you and slips past while time gets lost in department meetings, turf wars, pulled plugs, and projects that suddenly come out of the blue and leave it just as fast, the present becoming a spastic now that you don’t know how to stop but have to, so you make time, cram months into weeks pulling fifteen, sixteen, seventeen hour days five, six, seven days a week, fit yourself into the cycle of crunch time to get a project done followed by crash time to recoup so you can crunch once more, performing hack after hack, taking routes you don’t understand but somehow get you where you’re supposed to go all the while knowing your program will never work exactly right and all clarity and patience and insight and luck become subsumed into the prayer that you meet your deadline and your module works when the release is pushed out the door.
Not, of course, that we didn’t do it, write programs that worked, or worked well enough with the next decimal revision or two, or four or eight.
But the next years are a blur.
A network card is a piece of hardware that plugs into a PC and takes the cable that runs to a server. A network card driver is just the software that tells the PC the card is there and binds it to the PC’s system, allowing the PC to speak to a network and let data come and go, the user to use it. But there are layers of software to negotiate, and strategies that have to be deployed to grab the PC processor’s attention, to break into network traffic. Also matters of address and issues of compatibility, hard and soft. And a driver has to be both compact and efficient so it doesn’t tax the PC or create a bottleneck and leave the user wondering what is going on. It can take hundreds of lines of code.
Nothing I had done before prepared me for this work, but it didn’t take long to get up to speed. If you think in terms of the machine and software layers, instead of those of users and management, and find an appetite for details, a program falls into place. I met my deadlines and kept my code, my nose clean, even found a few spots in their drivers I could tweak. No one at the firm was impressed, but then again they weren’t unimpressed, so I supposed I was accepted and settled down in my cubicle, my box among many boxes in one of the many low-lying buildings off 101 whose form clung hard to function, coding away alongside the SF/Silicon Valley push. The job was not without its attractions. A driver can be a work of elegance, a gem with many polished facets, but after a while it just becomes so much bookkeeping, a taking into account all the standards that aren’t so standard. It wasn’t long before I started looking for work where the details added up to something more substantial.
A network operating system is a universe unto itself, self-contained and self-expanding, moved by the spirit of rapid flow and orderly division. And, when it connects users, it can be all-embracing. Not only does it have to manage itself and control and conserve the server’s hardware, but also work through the layers of communication and connect itself to all the PCs on a network and negotiate their different systems. It must know where the PCs are and keep track of them when they change, and show itself to them and what it holds, and open itself up to handle all their requests. It lines them up for a printer, routes their messages, takes and passes the files they send and ask for, and stores and organizes the files in hierarchies and keeps track of any changes here. If it connects to other servers, other networks, it has to organize and show and keep track of what they hold, and handle the requests that come from them. If databases and other network applications are added, it has to negotiate, show, and handle those. And it has to show and open itself up to the system administrator, who has to install and arrange the network and keep it up and running. And it has to be able protect itself from the PCs, decide what their users can do and keep them from doing what they should not, as well as safeguard what it holds by backing up files and deciding who can see what, which file can be changed by whom. And protect itself from breaks in the flow, and resolve conflicts and deal with errors and collisions. And it has to do all this with speed and transparency so users don’t have to wait and wonder about what is going on beneath the hood, yet remain stable so the network doesn’t overload and shut down and throw users in the void. Its code can run into the millions.
Summit, before it was called Summit, was a small network package with a quasi-technical, obscure name, which, like NetWare, was built from scratch, but which lagged well behind in market share. Then appeared everywhere, on billboards, in two page glossy spreads, only this, a thick black line that followed the contour of Mount Hamilton, breaking through a wisp of clouds—their new logo, soon followed by a beefed-up release of the system with its new name. Sales, stock soared, and while the technical press gave it mixed reviews, they treated it as a contender. It was a fluke they took me on because jobs with a firm that size and status were going to grad students from the best schools, to the guys with much more expertise and experience hopping around for top pay. I got the job because one Sunday, out running, I stopped in a park for a blow and was approached by K, a lead engineer at Summit, there taking laps.
Tall and pared to the bone, like a Giacometti statue, he spoke with a terseness that seemed to have been cut from something larger, which made one kind of sense, but perhaps not another. I don’t know where he got the K since none of his names had one. Kilobyte would have been too mundane, and while I doubt he took it from that Kafka character who found himself in a society whose system had bogged down and gone awry, I had the sense of someone who was all there and knew what he was about in a world that didn’t, then soon suspected the opposite was true. It wasn’t until I worked with him that I began to see how he thought, but still didn’t get very far.
Later I would doubt everything.
He told me he was impressed with the way I ran and I protested, because I don’t run that well at all. He persisted, though. He said he liked the way I kept my pace. What made me question him was what he might have concluded from that, because we started talking shop and I quickly saw he was out of my league, yet when I told him I was looking for a better job he said he’d put in a word.
What looked to be a flight from logic on his part became a leap of faith for me. I bluffed my way through the interview, showing an intimacy with drivers, shifting their questions to ones I could answer, or holding back when I could with a straight knowing face. Sometimes silence, played right, can go a long way. Or maybe K had more pull than I realized.
But not bluff, or bluff entirely. You’ll never know what you can do until you push yourself and try, and won’t get far if you don’t push yourself hard. Around here, you won’t get anywhere. Then I woke up one morning and found myself mired in a system that overwhelmed me, wondering how long I would survive.
I was put on the team revising the redirector, the other piece of network software installed in a PC that loads after the driver and presents the network, and decides whether requests from a user, from another application, can be handled by the computer or should go out into the network and be taken by the server. The issues of interface and complexity I saw in drivers were compounded, the relationship between the server’s system and the PC’s taken down a level, closer and more problematic. I now spent hours in a maddening rush, trimming, jockeying the code that handled all the exchanges and maneuvers to get the program to fit within the PC’s memory, and tracking down bugs that cropped up where I thought the program had been tamed, and trying to figure out why a PC crawled when connected to our system or what ran into its system from ours and made it hang and turn its video screen black.
Nothing in the code did exactly what I thought it was supposed to do. Everything I thought I knew was called into doubt. The parts I was assigned to rework that looked simple, a night’s dash at the keyboard, could take a week, most of that time spent in fruitless debugging, a rolling of rocks up hills only to have them fall back down once close to the top, each step towards order only inching me closer to my unraveling. Shipping dates that first seemed reasonable appeared out of reach, my dismissal imminent. In a world ruled by logic and peopled by the best minds, I could only assume that the difficulty came from my own failings. Only after I got my bearings did I see that much of the confusion was not mine.
Summit, I came to learn, was something of a bluff itself. The firm got venture bucks from Sand Hill to fund its expansion with a business plan that was largely smoke and mirrors. They undercut Novell in price, yet their sales projections were surreal. And while they pointed to their graphic interface, their ability to scale to larger networks, and a global directory service to manage and keep track of all the files spread across the servers, all this stuff was already in the works at Novell. When NetWare 4.1 appeared, a half year later, essentially the products were the same and the only real differences were bells and whistles.
A good part of the money went to us, the programmers; another chunk to build our campus, here in Montevista, which had the sparse, modern architecture you see in sci-fi movies where it appears the future has brought order and harmony but something is not quite right. A ton went to marketing, whose slick campaign caught on and kept attention. When they finally descended the slope of the Summit logo, they showed ads of us, the users, working in the same places we had always known, doing the same things we had done before, but now in ways which, while not quite mystical, were not quite of this world, the Summit logo now appearing in the background on the screen of our PCs. When they finally got around to actually referring to the product, they trumped up the minor differences and rephrased standard features to make them sound phenomenal and new, while their performance figures came from tests that simulated conditions less than real life. As much went to sales, an aggressive force who made their pitch to large firms shifting from mainframes to PCs and hit hard those not yet connected—small, medium-sized businesses, and local government and private institutions, especially the schools, who had more than open ears—maybe talking them into a system larger than they needed.
Meanwhile Summit, the company, was bleeding cash, which accounting found creative ways to disguise to keep Sand Hill and Wall Street content. Where the money didn’t go was testing for us, or for users tech support, whose small staff couldn’t handle all the calls. Summit, the system, was buggy and crash prone, a resource hog that couldn’t run well on anything less than a 486 Intel chip, then the fastest, and even there was sluggish. And despite their claims of GUI ease, Summit was a bear to set up and maintain, a puzzle to users once installed.
Nothing new here, not that Summit was alone in misdirection. Besides, sales is sales, advertising is advertising. We all are suckers because we like getting sucked in, every now and then. It lifts us off the ground and takes us outside ourselves, makes us think of other things. And we were thinking of other things, and believed getting connected would help us see those things more clearly. And we were getting connected. Prices of hardware and connections were falling fast and we were hooking up just as quickly—Netware at the time was adding a million of us a month—in addition to the banks and insurance companies and airlines and major corporations, now retail outlets and brokerage firms and publishers and ad agencies and PR departments and lawyers for the rest of us, the service industry and social services and charities, and hospitals and libraries and license bureaus and the police, getting connected and printing out and passing on memos and reports and spreadsheets and graphs and graphics, inventories and identities and vital statistics and layouts and emendations, balance sheets and projections and spins and takes and spreads and symptoms, and diagnoses and precedents for the rest of us, updating lists of customers and suppliers and donors and suspects and absent fathers, linking not just admissions and records, and science and computer science, but now English and philosophy departments, passing on whatever it was they passed. Summit only had to get its share and build from there.
And bluff is part of the game. Or not bluff, because everything was smoke and mirrors then. Reality wasn’t what we needed to discover then adjust ourselves to but what we were in the process of redefining, or recreating. For us, the users, it was impossible to predict where networking would take us; for us, the programmers, it was impossible to anticipate all the problems we would encounter with a system so large and complex. We all first had to get in and get going, then figure out the rest as it came. As for Summit, they had to get in quick, build a user base, and worry about cash and details in the program later. Nothing here comes to patient. Netware showed no signs of letting up and Microsoft was giving away their small network manager dirt cheap while hammering away at Windows NT, the system to serve all our computing needs, and then some.
Summit placed its faith in us, who made the system. They loaded up with everyone who caught someone’s eye and turned us loose—hackers, self-taught whizzes; the roaming pros, industry adepts; top grads and some of their professors, masters of theory and the arcane—swivel chair riders turned mavericks and gunslingers and warriors and tribal chiefs, the cowboys and Indians tearing across our western plains. Also long shots, like me, as well as K, whatever category he fit in, if he did, although I scarcely saw him the first year, then he dropped out of sight. They believed we could do anything, the more of us the better. Some of us were beginning to believe it ourselves.
And still not entirely bluff. If you don’t stretch belief you won’t see past what you already know and remain stuck there. Reach, solve problems, and their magnitude diminishes, thresholds become small steps.
And we had reached and moved on. We had advanced in not that many years from the Gates box that analyzed traffic on corners of Seattle to writing systems that could handle the city’s business, had moved so far so fast, several orders of size and complexity, that we could only look ahead.
And I had reached and moved on. I figured out what I needed to do and within a year was inside the system itself, working on its memory allocation code, then tuning its scheduler to wake up faster and push larger files through the larger, faster lines. And I began to look ahead. I could think in larger terms, of the possibilities of a whole, its possibilities.
Maybe we looked so far ahead that we lost sight of what we were doing, although I’m not sure all of us were certain what that was.
Creating a new system, however, would have required years Summit couldn’t spare, so we had to build on the previous system and work with its assumptions of only a few seasons back, these based on hardware capabilities and processes of the time, too entrenched to change but already out of date. Add to this the push from management to get Summit, the system, up and running as soon as possible, who had no idea what this would take.
While I suppose it worked well enough for what it was designed to do, the old version, manage small networks, it didn’t itself have a clear sense of itself within itself, of what held its parts together and how they passed data back and forth. Or without, of how users broached the system, what they could do within it, or with each other. We had to build on top of its uncertainty and scale up from there for the larger drives, the larger, faster CPUs, taking it on its own shaky terms but adding restrictions and special cases to what should have been reworked and left alone. Or we threw out the obsolete where we could and tacked on our own parts, redefining for ourselves what we were doing without having a central scheme to guide us as we tried to build the new system to manage the larger networks of the world.
But we also needed to look at ourselves, at our assumptions, at the spirit that moved us. The problems Summit posed were huge, and thus required answers, we believed, of a size to match, that could only be found by pushing the limits of our abilities and our ideas. We wanted to prove ourselves, and strove to outdo ourselves and each other. We also didn’t talk well—and didn’t see the irony in that, considering what we were making—but clashed and ran together in ways that could not be sorted out. Meetings lasted forever, going everywhere and nowhere, where whiteboards became fields of battles over game plans that resulted in busted plays. Or we kept to ourselves, either not deigning to spell out what anyone who knew his stuff should understand, or not questioning so as not appear as one who didn’t. Commenting in our code was sparse and cryptic, or nonexistent; in our units we talked of other things.
I don’t think it was just ego, though, but also the nature of our field, necessarily removed because of its large technical demands, which, in their difficulty, their loftiness, called us to reach their heights. This and something else we felt but did not know how to express, that we and what we were doing belonged to some higher realm that couldn’t be grounded in the obvious but would reveal itself in ways no one could imagine, our place there confirmed by the world who had begun to watch us and wait eagerly to see what we would turn out next. Or maybe it was only ego. The campus was charged with wonder and the tension from what was left unsaid.
As for us, for our system, mystery and angst. Our solutions tended to abstraction and complexity, resulting in components that were theoretically marvelous but opaque and fragile. Where theory didn’t quite reach came the kludges. Code should explain itself, in its writing make apparent what it does and how it does it. Not only did one team have to struggle to understand the parts another had made, we had trouble putting in words how our own functioned, so rarefied was our thought. A program should be composed of modules that fit cleanly and work together without interfering with one another. The interfaces between ours were thick and involved, and they intruded on one another in hidden ways. A software firm has libraries of code for reuse. I got so frustrated trying to figure out ours and getting it to work that I wrote my own, as did many others. At least I knew what I was doing, though I thought I was wasting time and was uneasy about how well what I wrote would work later when other code got piled on top. When we ran a build it was hard to tell what went wrong where, or even when we hit the mark. Our system was a universe of wormholes and black stars.
For us, and for our users. Summit rewrote the language of networking, inventing its own terms for setting up a network and for identifying users and their place in its domain and describing what they could do there when they entered, terms that tried to express both the ease of being there and the specialness of being there with Summit and its wizards, but did neither and left them in the dark. Where we couldn’t think of a term that might comfort and promote, we resorted to technical terms that didn’t suggest anything and technically referred to nothing outside of the techniques we had devised for ourselves. To explain ourselves, our manuals, which labored the obvious, skirted the difficult, and left holes for questions that we hadn’t anticipated or thought important.
Along with our language, our pictures, our GUI—our windows on our world—which, while they might make users feel at home, can only go so far in a network system, yet were trendy, and thus thought essential. Also because of Windows, and they gave Summit a chance to get its logo on every dialog box and spread the Summit mystique. The coding for simple boxes, buttons, and pull-down menus, however, is complex and takes volumes of special code; our solutions here were messy. On top of these, lapses of simple reason. Our picture of a printer did not look like any printer our users had ever seen, our error messages didn’t make sense. Users had trouble just finding basic commands, weren’t even sure how they were supposed to log on. And giving complicated tasks a simple appearance only makes them harder because you can’t see what goes on behind the pictures. Administrators who had to get inside the system screamed for more control so they could make Summit do what it had to do for them. I don’t think it’s so much that we thought our users were idiots, rather that we were uncertain of their existence. The icon of a person, the image we used to represent our user, was rather cute.
What most mattered was what lay beneath the surface, and above. Summit didn’t stand up well to what we had opened the flood gates, the push of the real world. Our hacks on the kernel, the system’s core, to boost performance made Summit prone to panics and corruption. What was not well defined and separated was left exposed. Summit could not protect itself from itself when processes ran afoul, or from users who strayed, or protect users from each other, a problem that didn’t hit home until we added a hookup to the Internet and diseases spread, break-ins became epidemic. And the code was so large and involved that some of us doubted we could ever get it to perform as it should or be able to plug all the leaks, that it wouldn’t stand up to what the future was going to throw.
Still, we did get converts, and many of our followers stayed with us and learned once more how to follow. And we flushed out the worst bugs and got Summit, the system, running well enough. Our pride and incomes, after all, depended that we did. Ultimately we were engineers, makers whose identities were based on making things that worked. Also we were good, some of us the best, and reasonable at heart, or wanted to be, though many of our sins were covered by the larger memory and faster chips. But really Summit, the system, didn’t perform well except with a ton of RAM on a Pentium chip when it came out, which, in terms of price, put it out of reach for many. So Summit, the company, had to bide its time until prices for both came down. In the meantime, they were stuck with a program that didn’t distinguish itself in any significant way from the others for the better, a user base that wasn’t growing fast enough in a PC market that was saturated, or so the industry analysts feared in ’94. All the while they were still bleeding cash.
And while my paycheck and status kept going up, I never settled in. The time I spent climbing Summit, pushing Summit time and memory, had warped my sense of both. Months rushed by, standing still. The more I learned, the less sure I felt about what I did, what I knew, or what I should remember. The only thing I can point to is that I wasn’t left standing when the music stopped, the system crashed, and the problem could be traced to me.
I wasn’t going anywhere, rather felt like I was back where I started, in Detroit patching up a botchy system, with only this difference, that one kind of shortsightedness had been replaced with another, that the compromises once made from inertia, meanness, and ineptitude now came from excess, property, and show. I got an ulcer at 27 and couldn’t sleep, when I did, had dreams of people I didn’t quite recognize doing things in a hazy place, who weren’t quite of this world or any other. When I woke up, I went to work and saw the same.
New pitcher for our team—the coaches don’t want to run their kids too long this early in the season.
Our head coach’s son—he must be, now that I see him on the mound, because he has the same reserve, the same gently sloping forehead, emerging, a slight but forceful plow, the same open gaze that shows not hope though maybe faith, or faith emerging, but largely sheer confidence, stirred, perhaps, by his counterpart’s performance and sharpened by the moment, the task at hand.
Something is in the air that wasn’t there before.
And now, looking forward, he stares down the chute.
And now he sets and winds.
Summit, I discovered, had hedged its bet. At a time when the major outfits were blitzing the nation and working behind the scenes to become the PC operating system of choice, Summit decided they had to do better what they were doing, make a network system that worked well and that most of us could use well enough. Really, given the others’ money and clout, it was the only option they had. To do this, they remade their system once more, this time putting it on top of Unix, transforming Summit, the system, into Summix, only a year after Summit hit the shelves and still hung in the mists.
It was a time, not long ago at all, when the industry paid a lot of us to sit in back rooms and think, believing that anything we came up with that was strange and new and pushed the machine to its limits could be turned into cash, a time of oddities and our most creative work. Unix was K’s idea, though there was nothing extreme or new about it. First appearing some twenty years before, back in the days of the big boxes, when a system had to be written for a specific machine and programs had to run straight through in batches, Unix was designed by a pair of transcendent minds at Bell Labs, Ritchie and Thompson, who wanted a system that was machine independent and would allow programmers to halt the ponderous beast and interact, whose ruling passion was to keep it simple. Antitrust wouldn’t let AT&T sell Unix, so they gave it away, and hackers and universities added to and fine tuned it ever since. But other than Sun’s version and a few others for work stations and high end machines, it hadn’t had much commercial success. Businesses, lay users found its interface weird and saw it as the system of geeks.
K’s motives were technical, however, not economic. Or maybe moral. Or esthetic. Or all three or none of those but something else. I never did understand what moved him, there were things he did not explain. At any rate, his argument was that Unix was robust, a term that appealed to management egos and soothed their unvoiced fears about Summit, the system and the firm, their uneasiness about where both, they stood. PCs were large and fast enough to handle Unix now and they could add any user interface they wanted. But they had to find the code. When AT&T split they took control of their version, then later sold it to an outfit that wanted to make Unix all its own. So K talked Summit into buying out Rosebud, a company that years before tried to make a go of Unix and hadn’t gotten anywhere. Then he went off site with eleven others to create Summix in secret, away from the fray—the reason I hadn’t seen him.
I also don’t know why he asked me to join the team as I didn’t think I had done much more than keep my head above the waters. It was something else you didn’t ask him. I was ready for any kind of break, however, and once again jumped at an offer without knowing what I was getting into, then spent the next three years with K and his disciples, coding away in one of the faceless buildings on Bubb Road, quiet except when the middle school around the corner let out and kids trudged by with loaded backpacks, a caravan of mothers in minivans and SUVs passed.
Basically a basic box, with a small, obscure sign out front that conjured nothing, 16954 Bubb was an apt place to work on Unix, itself a system that separates itself from noise so it can focus on its work. At its heart, the kernel, which sits on top of the hardware, handles the basic functions of storage and memory, and schedules and runs tasks on the CPU, the processing in and out of requests from above. Above, applications and users, who make the requests to tell the hardware to do whatever it is they want done. Between the kernel and applications and users, however, the shell, which translates requests into calls for the kernel, thus separating what comes from above from what goes on down below.
Only a small part of the kernel has to be written to meet the specifics of the hardware. The rest of the kernel and the shell are written for themselves, and applications are written for the shell, which is what makes Unix independent and portable. Also its memory management won’t let one process creep into another’s memory space, and users are kept apart by a system of privileges. Because of this separation and translation, applications and users don’t have to worry about the hardware’s innards, users are protected from each other, and the kernel is protected from errant runs that can screw a system up. And GUI pictures can be placed on top of everything so users don’t have to type commands into the shell but point and click without having to know or worry about anything except what they are trying to do.
Along with the kernel and shell, hundreds of utilities and commands, accessed through the shell, that do one thing and that can be easily combined to do another, which are used to shape the system however its needs to be shaped. Also tools to write, compile, and debug whatever else needs to be written, and large libraries of functions to support programming, code that can be reused. Add to this vast archives of the work of Unix programmers across the spectrum. As much an actual system, it is a system of possibilities, waiting to be put together.
At least I knew the language, C, designed by Ritchie along with Unix to make the system intelligible, but I didn’t know much else and was anxious about what I could do, how the others would take me. Unlike Summit, the system and the firm, in both Unix and our closed box on Bubb mistakes showed up fast. And these guys were sharp. They talked with an easy precision that showed how much they had in place, and their pauses implied even more. But I was never singled out, comparisons were not made. They simply put me to work and let my work speak for me. When it didn’t, it was left to me to come to the obvious conclusion to hit the keys and start again.
I have since come to believe that the only people who really know what they are doing don’t show it, or feel they have to mask it in a backward guise of modesty or show others up. Perhaps because people who know what they are about have nothing to prove, or are smart enough to realize that proving oneself doesn’t prove anything. Or maybe because once away from Summit they were removed from the need for pretense and were allowed to do what they wanted, and what they wanted to do was do what they knew how to do and do it right. Or maybe some of us had given show a good run there and got to see it for what it was. And saw that pretense, like humility, was just a waste of time.
Or maybe humility after all, or not humility but the sober recognition that comes to anyone who really knows his stuff and has been around long enough to learn that there’s only so much one can grasp, so much one can do. With us, it was the realization that our programs now were becoming so large and complex, their relationships with users and other software just as involved, that however we made them we’d never be able to predict all the circumstances they’d have to meet, all the interactions with which they’d have to contend. There were no silver bullets. This difficulty was magnified by what our systems now had to face, what we had created and had taken off without us, the worlds of networks, ever growing larger. We were moving from unpredictability to the unfathomable and approaching chaos.
And/or maybe they took their cues from Unix. Unix is as much a philosophy as a specific implementation, a theory of making a whole from separate, solid parts. With philosophy comes practice, guidelines that determine how a system is put together and steer it from conflict and confusion. Learning these helped me understand Unix, write for it, and avoid the same. Make a program that does one thing, and one thing well. Build it with simple modules, and design the methods, the conventions that determine what passes between them—their interfaces—clean. Have a clear sense of what a program is supposed to do as well as how it is supposed to do it, respecting the integrity of its mechanics and not letting uses, what comes from above, intrude and compromise the works. Following these rules not only helps you see what you are doing, but also keeps problems in your programs local instead of spreading out into the system where they can’t be tracked down.
Not just define purpose and mechanics, but show them. What most helped me learn is the Unix tenet that a system should reveal itself and talk, that process be should be made visible, the implicit made understood. Thinking should approach the self-evident, the model that describes how a program is supposed to act be devised in such a way, direct and simple, that is readily apparent. What you can’t explain to yourself now won’t make sense to you or anyone else later who has to go back in to modify or fix what you have done. Facilities should be built in to display a program’s internal states so you can trace the process. Wherever possible pass text, not opaque machine code, and have programs talk to each other in words that people can read and manage. Name parts, variables and functions, with terms that refer to something that can be conceived now and will mean something later. Comment on your code as if writing for someone other than yourself; document for the world.
What goes for Unix went for the group, they talked and assumed that I would join them. Knowledge was shared and gathered in upward building, not hoarded, or chiseled out by attrition, our tearing each other apart until the last man, the last idea stood. When we had questions, we asked them. When we understood something, we said it. When we didn’t, we said that as well. And we reveled in announcing our mistakes and failures because at least we were able to identify with certainty something that wasn’t right, deal with it and put it behind us.
Talk not just because we needed to pass on what we did know, but as much because we had to have a way to approach all that we did not. Because our goal was not to design some Platonic system reached through intense, internal contemplation of absolutes that would send documents between ideal, sexless gods in some ethereal, eternal realm. Rather make one that could meet the unexpected and face the worst case, wade through mud and handle the traffic of the place we found ourselves in and whatever place might follow that, a system based on certainties but left options and questions open, which could only be made through trial and error, with hit or miss talk.
Not that we lived the lives of saints. When we had arguments, we fought robustly. Really, though, our fights were staged, and the roles we took in them quickly discarded. They were part of the process, not just a way of blowing off steam, but also of clearing the air and seeing our work afresh. Every now and then something new and useful appeared once the dust had settled.
This is what gave me hope starting out, that Unix is pragmatic, and skeptical about what it is supposed to be. Start with the solid, what you know, and build from there. If a plan doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, throw it out. But more, start somewhere, prototype first, get a program up and running, and save the fine tuning for later. Make sure a program does what it is supposed to do without worrying about what you can’t predict, yet at the same time leave room in your data formats and code for growth so revisions can be made later. Make it separate and independent, but keep its channels open so it can be modified later for other uses.
The result for me was that I soon quieted my doubts and wrote components I understood and could repair, then pass on with confidence. With confidence came growth. I found my place with the team and the place of my work within the system, then was able to move on from there.
The result for us was a system that was graceful, coherent, stable, and efficient, that could handle the rush of the present with less chance of crashing and was prepared to adapt itself to whatever the future might bring.
So much was already in place. The package we bought from Rosebud itself was a version of Unix developed at Berkeley, brought to Rosebud by grad students once there, and had most of the basic parts as well as a history of networking, an intimacy with TCP/IP, the protocols of the internet, with which the Berkeley system had grown up, with the blessings of the Department of Defense. Rosebud had ported it to the 386 chip so the system could run on PCs and added its own refinements. Other parts—a file system, a graphics engine for our user interface, an email server, other utilities, were freely available from the schools or other Unix firms. Or from open source, independent hackers who wrote from scratch Unixlike versions of their own to avoid legal hassles with AT&T, from whom we later got Apache, the web server then barebacking across the Internet plains.
So a great deal of our work was a matter of fine tuning and optimizing and adapting what was already there—speeding up file retrieval, tightening security, ironing out compatibility issues with the other platforms, other network systems, including our own, Summit, which posed the greatest problems—and filling in—writing drivers, an installer, and other odds and ends, and rewriting for Unix the directory services and the few other features we retained from Summit—and pulling all of this together and integrating it into a consistent whole, following open standards ourselves so we could stay with the Unix movement and not fall into proprietary traps.
As much our work was a matter of fixing appearance and giving definition, deciding what to show users and how it looked, setting the terms in their dialogs with the system—simple matters that proved not to be simple at all but presented challenges technical as well as those of logic and sense. It is not always obvious how to make obvious the obvious, and just as difficult to recognize what is subtle and has to broken down into its subordinate parts and given names. Terms, icons, the placement of commands in menus should follow practice, but where there were no strong customs we had to create our own, ones that were consistent within themselves and with what a network system had to do.
We kept as many of the current terms as we could and were reluctant to add our own, but still had to rewrite much of the language of networking as well as the special languages of Unix and Summit for Summix, coining words that were direct and generic and, if possible, concrete. We also tried to retain the look of Summit so Summix would follow Summit in orderly succession and maintain our user base. But we modified Summit’s pictures to match the common representations of files and folders and cursors that users now saw on their desktop systems, and we made its other icons refer to common objects. Where we couldn’t find an object, we threw the picture out and replaced it with a word. In the end, all we kept from Summit was its icon of a user, which we had a designer dignify, and its logo, the thick, black line of a mountain peak above the clouds.
The order of our design, in the layout of windows and the location of commands, reflected the order of what lay underneath, the placement and working of the parts, as well as gave users a picture of their place within the system to reinforce their sense that they moved in a system of order. But we also structured what we showed in levels, putting core services and basic commands on top, nesting beneath these the more complex preferences and functions so users could ascend Summix in steps. Our installer told them what was happening, what was being put where and why, and began to teach them what they’d need to know later, identifying settings and processes and the terms they’d see in dialog boxes, all of which was picked up and fully explained in our manuals. And we left the system open so skilled administrators could work directly on the shell and do with the system whatever they wanted. It was the one directive we got from Summit that we fully embraced, that we make a system easy for small firms and casual users to get up and running as well as one that could scale up and meet the needs of an enterprise. Our motives here were partly democratic, though probably as much still egocentric. With all the time we spent, we wanted to get Summix out there and make a presence.
We worked independently, separately, following the spirit of what moved us, taking on the projects that touched our special interests, our rare talents. It was being given this freedom that not only allowed us to work together but also find that what most moved us was doing whatever we had to do to get the project done, and we took on the tedious and trivial as well. In my case I tuned the virtual memory system for greater throughput, and took on a few other tasks of equal challenge. But I also spent a lot of time writing drivers for the newer network cards so they could ship with the package, as well as testing and debugging whatever was passed around—the same tedious work I had done before, but with this difference, that it had a coherent purpose. And I was involved in the interface sessions, working with the designers, from which, to my surprise, I learned a few things about programming I didn’t know.
Always there but invisible at our center, K, who did the hairy work of rewriting the hardware layer of the kernel for the 486 and Pentium chips, as well as oversaw the project, dividing and assigning tasks without telling anyone what to do. He was an architect in every sense of the word. In some people you can see buildings rising. In K you saw an entire city, flagpoles atop skyscrapers down to sewer pipes and all the connections in between. He had the whole design in his head and was attentive to the smallest detail. He could smell out bugs and sense ideas that wouldn’t work before they had been written. Rumor had it he could think in machine code. K inspired something close to awe, and even the best of us deferred to him.
Neither of which he would indulge, our worship or our respect. While he wasn’t self-deprecating, his terseness of words and manner and the utter absence of self-promotion gave that impression. In other ways he was strange, even for a programmer, ways that were hard to pin down—I never could remove him from the realm of Kafka. Yet the strangeness was not something that belonged to him but rather was what he held before him, something sizable and moving, that he couldn’t wrap his mind around or fit into a plan, yet still saw with precision and which somehow defined him, and sensing this in him moved me at least to withhold judgment of him, maybe judgment itself. Nor was he graceful in any sense of the word, yet he did foster a kind of ease. There was nothing about him to dislike, though I can’t say I especially liked him. Yet I liked not especially liking him a great deal, and while I never felt close to him he made me feel closer to myself.
But he did defer to us. He listened to our ideas when they were good, sometimes when they were not. Because he wanted us in on the planning and would talk to us about the overall design as if we understood, even if we didn’t. Only after we left him did we realize he had told us what to do, which we did. The temptation is to say that he was trying to validate our egos and boost morale, but again I suspect he was only being practical. Getting us involved and turning us loose was the only way the work would get done.
Not all the code we got from the other sources had been perfected, and what worked in Rosebud and the other Unixes didn’t necessarily work well in ours. Unix is a method, not a cure, for wallowing in the dark. The more heads you have working on a problem from different angles, the better chance you have of coming up with a solution. And no matter how well laid out the Unix procedures, a large part of writing its programs is still spent testing and debugging. Against the time needed here, the pressure from Summit to get Summix out fast, who along with NetWare was losing market share to Windows NT, barreling down the tracks. But the only way we could compete with them was to make a product that got it right, so we put in the long hours, gearing ourselves to a stepped-up patience.
So still and as ever do you have to manage and push, push the size of what you know and manage to retrieve it, push the limits of what you can produce, still have to focus and keep track of all the possible crossings of piled on bits of simple logic, keep track and handle all the breaks, the interruptions, and still find shortcuts but also watch for detours and dead ends and be prepared for the unexpected when a dash down a straight corridor leads to an unexpected crash, still and ever keep time with the processor’s accelerated beat while time slips away, weeks, months, years, even as you put more time in, the long days, the nights you slept on the floor, and yet but still have to stop time and debug, and stop and go more often, and stop and go faster, stop and keep debugging and revising and running builds and keeping track of versions and going back to an earlier one when the newer goes astray and debugging and revising and running until you see your way through a stuttering now—or stop once again and throw everything out once more and again start over.
I found out what K meant in his remark about my running, back when I first met him in the park, about how I kept my pace. Keeping pace, I discovered, is not so much a matter of reserve, of spelling yourself out to go the distance, but rather a kind of vision, the ability to see past present fatigue and through despair so you can stay focused and keep going. Distance is a state of mind, which can be altered. With Unix, I learned how to avoid going places where I couldn’t see what would happen or know how to fix when I got there. And I built a kernel of the self, a functioning core of mind and spirit that handled the basic tasks before me, and separated and protected itself from the ache of stress, from the noise of my confusion, the noise above.
Above, outside us, while Summit kept going downhill and while the state was still in another recession and its hills burned in summer and the burned-out hills flooded in winter and Californians moved out in U-Hauls or filled its prisons on their third strikes—we stayed put in our box on Bubb and kept on coding.
There wasn’t time, but still the questions came, how work might have changed me, what my effort was worth. The hours, the strain—what toll they might take. The narrow framework I had fit myself into so I could produce—how that shaped me and affected my life as a whole. Really, though, I didn’t have a good system of organizing my energies before, and with Summix I found a way to focus and get something done. And with the making and doing something right came a sense of completion, with completion, wholeness, with wholeness, restoration. Time and memory had come together and were making sense. My stomach healed and I felt stronger and more capable than I ever had before.
After a while, however, you don’t think about yourself anymore, but about what you’re doing. You stop wondering if you are good at what you do, but whether you are doing it right, even stop thinking whether you are good in any sense—or maybe this is what goodness is.
Then there was what we had put aside, the world outside our box, where it was going without us, what our work might worth to it when done. But there had to be some value, at least in itself, in our coming together, in forming a community that stayed together to make something well, and other value in what we were making, a network system strong enough to handle whatever faith the world might invest it.
And push, stay focused, and keep going, and at some point you reach a plane of abstraction where logic begins to glide and programming thrives. Push turns to pull, strain becomes the stress that purifies and charges. What came out of me the screen returned in an ever widening loop, opening up possibilities not just of our system but of systems outside of computers, of the notion of system itself and what possibilities a system might free—and I didn’t want to stop to sleep and when I slept I saw horizons spreading out and dreamed about what might lie past them and about flying there and when I woke I rushed to pick up where I left off and didn’t think about limits but what else I could do, what we could do, talking, coding, asking and returning, receiving and passing light in our windowless cathedral on Bubb from which the light of order poured.
When Netscape came out with its friendly browser in ’95, we all got a boost. PC sales took off once again, and we picked up the pace. Then the sessions with the tech writers, and with the testers, the revisions that came from these. Only silence from the brass at Summit, who now banked all their hopes on us.
Then the last stretch, the polishing and cleaning up.
In ’97 Summix shipped—
The trade journals praised it for its performance. On a 486 machine Summix marched in step, on a Pentium it waltzed across a network floor. The popular magazines gave rave reviews for its ease of use. Summit launched another large campaign, this one subdued and direct, which got a sigh of relief from the people who watched that sort of thing.
And Summix didn’t make a dent. The world had gone to Redmond, and wanted to keep its look.
Summit limped along for another year, then the music stopped. The firm went under, I got laid off, and was left holding worthless stock options.
Our careers and personal lives aside, I think our real regret was that our effort was to an extent wasted. There wasn’t any way we could have kept up with what Torvalds and thousands of open source programmers were perfecting on their own and giving away for free, Linux, then gaining market share and showing no signs of letting up, making Redmond sweat.
At least Marilyn and I had bought our house.
Two outs, but two on. Our pitcher, however, has been in control. He’s kept his head, his pitches down, and the first two batters hit grounders easily fielded. And while he walked the third and the fourth legged out a slow roller to short, he’s ahead in the count.
Now he pauses on the mound and stares off, with right hip hunched on his back foot, without question about what he has to do next.
Such confidence inspires, makes you take a breath and hold it. Maybe not that much, just enough for a kids game, yet not a copy nor its mask, not something he is trying on for size, but the thing itself, and possibly all he needs. And there’s nothing mysterious or ambiguous about it. Part of this confidence comes from the mind and body he got from Dad, but most of it has to be learned, and if learned enough times will grow strong enough to stay. And even though it may not make a difference, three runs down with two at bats left, what he gains here he will have later when outcomes matter more, or at least will help him face whatever comes.
And the team looks sharp, and have executed well behind him. Set on their toes and flexed, like the pitcher they are attentive to the moment, what it holds, what it can release.
Yet still nothing has gone to Allen. Though he leans into the game with the others, I don’t know where his mind is. He has his mother’s face.
November 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
There comes a time when one realizes one has to go outside for help.
Also that one is alone.
I decided to go online.
As hard as I worked writing software for networks, I scarcely used them. I don’t know if there is any irony in this or not. But I didn’t have the time or, I thought, the need.
I did roam the tech bulletin boards, when I moved to California settled on one, WCX, the West Coast Exchange, run by a programmer in Santa Cruz who only took on work when he needed money and spent the rest of his time on his own projects. WCX was followed by a small group of those of us in the trade, in the computer science departments, and some hackers—guys devoted to what they were doing and had nothing else to prove. In part it was a way for us pass on what we learned that couldn’t be found elsewhere. For those of us who coded for pay, it helped us keep our professional identities intact. But it also gave us somewhere to hang out and voice our beefs about what was going on in the industry, in our lives. Divided into separate forums for processors, other hardware, operating systems, other software, networking, and the like, where topics could be raised and which branched out in threads of response, WCX also had a miscellaneous forum where we posted whatever else was on our minds, when the mood struck. My first years at Summit it was a place for me to come up for air, while working on Summix, my source for all that was happening at breakneck speed outside our box.
It wasn’t until Summit folded and I contracted out with the dotcoms that I really started looking at what was happening on the Web so I could get a sense of what I was dealing with and had to do. I felt like a modern day Rip Van Winkle who had awakened to a different world. The proliferation of sites that ran the gamut, the gimmicks, the commercial seepage—what I found was overwhelming. A lot of it was pretty slick, a lot more a little cheap. When I hit the search engines, I was as much amazed by all the questions to which I could not find answers as by those I could. Trips through hyperlinks took me to unexpected pages and unknown places, or to dead ends, sites barely up that had already disappeared. Prophets and visionaries lurked on every corner. Yet the activity itself was exhilarating—all the sites, all the links, all the words and pictures, the lists my searches returned that could run for hundreds of pages—as was just the thought of the incomprehensible number of bits passing across the lines. There had to be potential here that what I saw was just testing and trying out.
As far as the technology, I really was out of the loop now, working at home, so I spent more time in WCX. In ’97 Phil moved the forum to the Web to reach a larger crowd, getting advertising from Slak, a hip hardware supplier, to offset the cost. Membership took off, and while it was heartening to see how many of us were involved, anyone who had a PC and was hooked up considered himself an authority of some sort and a lot of the information wasn’t good. Others started showing up I couldn’t place who were still running with tech but also moving in other areas, some on the fringes of fields I didn’t know. Even among some of us who had been there all along, the attitude shifted towards the revolutionary and/or messianic. The platform wars, the browser wars, the debates over what we were doing and what our next step should be were heated with an intensity that approached religious fervor, ultimately tedious. The language, the naming of the parts, had ascended to yet another level—more proprietary trumping up of the simple, our own flights into arcane—and it was harder to know what was what and what it did. But so much of what we wrote now was geared for the Web, and with the incompatibilities and uncertainties this brought, along with the uncertainty of the future, of the industry, of the technology itself, of the problems caused by scaling up for the world—a lot of what was being done was genuinely mysterious. Still I knew how to find those I trusted and let what they had to say speak for itself. After all, looking at what comes in and how it goes out was what I had trained myself to do.
And after the separation, when Allen was with Marilyn, company was hard to find. Families got together with families; my divorced friends were busier than I. I wrote long emails to friends and relatives back East, but no one had the time or inclination. Ties with the guys at Summix vanished with Summit. I don’t know what happened to K himself. The rumors—that he sold out and got a job in Redmond, or was meditating in Tibet, or had secluded himself to work on some other project by himself, or had put programming behind him and moved on to something else unfathomably higher, or had taken a long walk into the Pacific—reflected our own suspicions and further showed we didn’t know anything about him. At any rate, no one knew where he was.
So I hit the streets only to find out what Marilyn meant about the town being dead at night. There never was that much, yet the spots I remembered from less hectic days, where I’d run into others and talk shop—the modest restaurants, an unpretentious cafe, a low-key bar—were gone, the restaurants replaced by the chic and overpriced, or by prodigy of the chains working volume over slim margins and cheap labor, the cafe by a carpet store doing the same, the bar by a Chinese joint that looked working class and where I got hard stares. Drives around town looking for quiet out of the way places took me nowhere. Trips up 280, I’d be haunted by the giant faces of Picasso and Einstein, hanging on Apple’s walls at Infinite Loop, who exhorted me to think different.
If anyone went out at night, I couldn’t find where, except for Click, a large bar at an intersection on 280 with a California contemporary decor that had been distressed, which featured live bands every night and was always packed. The music was a mix, different camps featured every night—rock, its offshoots and offshoots of the offshoots, some sort of jazz, and even country western—all of it played loud, old stuff being pushed somewhere. I did see some guys I knew and a lot of familiar faces, but also many that weren’t, even though many had to have been in the trade as well, along with still others I’m sure weren’t but acted as if they were. But I didn’t recognize the look on anyone, a pumped up exuberance that didn’t seem to have a source. I doubt they went there for the music, but rather were looking for a place to give their own volume knobs a turn.
So I turned to WCX, where I could at least hear myself and think. But now I spent my time in Misc, not saying much but listening, just to put some social time in and have some kind of contact.
And one night, a little drunk, I posted this question:
What’s wrong with all these ducks?
But I didn’t explain. The Nasdaq was still climbing, as was mood everywhere, with no end in sight to either, yet I was getting more and more depressed. Not because of my work. The projects I took on were manageable and quick, the programming interesting enough, and I liked being on my own for a change. Fairly simple stuff, really, but the people I worked for now invested me with extraordinary powers and looked on what I did with awe, which embarrassed me more than flattered.
Not wholly because of the separation and pending divorce, which I had more or less contained. Rather it was because I felt something was wrong with me, and the proof was all around. Why was I down when everyone else was up?
But still not entirely that, or maybe not that at all, but something outside me. The scatter Marilyn raised in the counseling sessions had begun to settle and disturb. What I was referring to in my question was the throng of ducks at Civic Center Park. I had taken Allen there for years and hadn’t really noticed, but it’s possible the problem had taken a sudden surge the last year and now approached a little crisis. They were all over the place, along with Canadian geese, crows, and our native birds, fighting for territory and food. Everything was streaked with dried grayish droppings, the walks, the benches, the swings and slides. The pond had turned to an opaque foulness. When not feeding or fighting, the ducks waddled aimlessly in crowds or swam in traffic, their comic faces desperately inane, their honks the maddened cries from bedlam. The geese, however, were seriously aggressive, menacing to a kid.
The situation at the park was sad, of course, but only in a minor way when put in the larger scheme of things. Change perspective, however, put yourself in the place of a duck, and it becomes cataclysmic. Not that I could do this, or that trying got me anywhere, yet one sight struck me I couldn’t shake, that of a few ducklings who didn’t make it through our traffic following their mother across the road, seeing on asphalt only their flat, tiny beaks and some feet and feathers distinct among the smear of their splayed, smashed organs. And I think this may be what really got me started, that I was seeing through Allen’s eyes, then saw him on the street.
Of course I got the responses I should have expected, psychoanalyses of Daffy and Donald, the thread on viaduct that took off in a long Marxbrotherian chain of nonsense.
But others in Misc did know what I was talking about and another thread started on probable causes and effects. The absence of predators, nothing else to keep their numbers in check. Our feeding them, their becoming dependent on us; ducklings taking their cues from their parents. Stomachs designed for vegetation not processed bread, the possible effects of this food on their systems after a few generations. As for the migrating birds, because of suburban development, fewer places to stop and rest, some taking to temperate climes like ours and settling down. With their responses came links to other city parks, environmentalist and naturalist groups, and schools doing research.
All of which I pretty much guessed, but it didn’t seem enough. But there were also discussions about larger causes, changes in society, in patterns of urban growth, that affected the ducks in ways less direct than our feeding or running them over. And in nature, shifts in weather patterns, in the behavior of birds themselves, again the extent these might be caused by us, what nature did on its own. Someone even wrote up a quick program to calculate bird populations with relevant variables to work, which was followed with links to chaos/complexity sites that spelled out theories accounting for seemingly random phenomena and offered programs to download that simulated growth, flight, and other processes in life. No one, however, had a good solution, and many thought there might not be one.
What surprised me more was that Misc knew I had something else in mind, that what was going on with the ducks might be analogous in some way to what was happening in our own lives. The extent we had become too dependent on others, on institutions, were processing less than wholesome stuff, foods, certain ideas. Shifts in our ways of thinking, in the economy, in how we lived and got along. Random events in society, in nature; their diffuse effects. Discussions on how small changes, worked enough, could have large and unpredictable results—which brought links to other chaos/complexity sites, theories about how these studies might be applied to social sciences. New threads started on parenting and endangered species and overcrowding, on pollution and alternative energy sources, and game theory in economics. With the threads came more links to sites devoted to these.
This discussion overlapped the first in other ways, but with the difference that there was not much consensus over how serious the problems were, or even if they were problems. But also there was the general feeling that whatever problems we had could be solved by finding the right approach, changing the technology, or taking a blind leap. Someone saw the ducks, or whatever they might represent in the turbulence of our lives, as just the broil that preceded radical transformation, on its way.
None of which was helpful or erased the image I saw on the road. But I was impressed by Misc’s knowledge and the apparent depth of its thought, its reach. And there seemed to be genuine engagement, and I felt a community I was missing. So I thought I’d try again and another night, sober, posted this question:
What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Which got no response, but it wasn’t the question I meant to ask. A few days later, maybe sober or maybe not, I asked this:
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
Which wasn’t related to the question I meant to ask and wasn’t the kind of thing I might say. In fact I couldn’t recall ever hearing the expression before. So much, however, finds its way into our heads we don’t know how to retrieve until it gets shaken out. I suppose I had Marilyn on my mind. It was what Misc reminded me of, the confusion of the counseling sessions. Yet Misc seemed to thrive on what undid Marilyn and I wanted to get closer to its heart, or maybe hers.
This post set off another chain reaction of where are’s—five cent stamps, five cent cigars, pension plans, good mechanics, doctors who made house calls, politicians who spoke in complete sentences, Fortran and a half dozen other languages, hardwood floors, platinum blondes, tailfins—and hundreds more, one liners that ran for pages.
Someone else posted the question:
Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?
A line from Joseph Heller’s novel, someone else explained, about the bombardier who got disemboweled by Nazi flak, which started two more quick chain reactions, one of friends, strangers, or brief acquaintances who had fallen by the way, hapless victims or saps or martyrs of recent frays, I supposed but couldn’t tell as I didn’t recognize any names. The other of catch-22’s today, bureaucratic traps, political absurdities, and quirks in nature, both of which went on for pages as well, few of them very serious, some so serious they couldn’t be taken seriously.
I hadn’t realized how large WCX had grown, as each post brought more usernames I didn’t recognize either. The mood of Misc was hard to gauge as well. I couldn’t tell if it was beyond sentiment, or that there was something real behind its sarcasm, or if it was just genuinely confused.
Someone noted that the question was the refrain from a poem by Francois Villon, a French writer of the Middle Ages, and I found that there were people with literary interests in Misc, also a few scholars. He posted the text in French, and others followed with background on Villon’s life and various translations, which led to debate over these and the poem’s interpretation.
Villon, I discovered, was a rogue and a lover, who spent a good part of his life either on the streets of Paris or in prison, but was also was something of a scholar himself and a poet who took his craft seriously. The poem simply asks where they are now, women from his time and ages past and from legends and lore, heroines, whores, and queens, whose lives were ruled by various passions, then poses the question he asks in his refrain.
Queen Blanche who had a siren’s voice,
white as a lily on the plain;
Big-Footed Bertha, by Heaven’s choice
mother of great Charlemagne;
and Joan of Arc from proud Lorraine
the English burned from cruel fear—
where are they, where, O Mother of Men?
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
I was also told that it was part of a much larger work, The Testament, which followed a mock form of the time, though it wasn’t clear how much Villon had his tongue in his cheek. In his version, a summing up of a hard life and love lost, a settling of scores, a bequeathing of what little he had, an outlining of details for his funeral, and appeals to above. But he was only in his early thirties when he wrote it and might have died soon after, probably broke and worn out.
I’m fairly certain I’d never read the poem, but like the ducks it struck another note and stayed with me, as did the poet, though we had nothing in common, save our age and a sense of loss. The simple poem, however, became more baffling the more times I read it What should be made of the women’s deaths and where should we look for causes? Nor was I sure how the refrain should be taken—did the French back then attach the same sentiment to snow as we did now? If so, what did that mean?
Most of literary Misc saw snow as a symbol of transience, the poem a contemplation of our mortality. Someone, however, thought the coldness of snow served to mark a contrast that set in relief the poem’s, the poet’s passion. Someone else said “yesterday” was a better translation than “yesteryear,” placing Villon’s interest in his present time, and claimed snow was a sign of affirmation because what melted in winter provided water for life in spring. In either case, Villon had no regrets over how he lived his life or what he had spent for love, an attitude I found bracing yet disturbing.
What can you expect, someone asked, given Villon’s world—the interminable wars, the corruption in clergy and state, the epidemics and famine and roaming marauders, the hungry wolves in the streets? And I found out we had historians, and that once again Misc realized I had more in mind than snow or an ex-wife. Threads ran debating whether the Middle Ages were as bad as we thought, if the Renaissance, around the corner, was all it was cracked up to be, these followed by parallels drawn to our times, more debates as to whether we were in a dark age, though in ways less obvious and cataclysmic, or were flourishing in a renaissance ourselves, the pros and cons here.
With all the discussions, more links all over, to more universities, and literary and historical societies, some French, and places to buy hardwood floors online.
The poem touched other nerves, and tentatively at first, but then in quick unraveling came the threads on love and gender roles, and I found out there were many more women in Misc than I thought. I couldn’t tell where Misc was on gender, though, whether we were going back or forward, or were going anywhere, or even what the differences between one and the other were supposed to be, and the postings on love were effusive and maudlin.
So another night, drinking this time to get sober, I posted this declaration:
The Towers of Hanoi.
Maybe I was being sentimental again, but I think I was trying to restore order. Or maybe, if Allen inspired the ducks post and Marilyn the snow, this one may have come from my own questions about myself and what I had been doing.
The Towers of Hanoi is an ancient game where the goal is to move a pyramid of disks from one rod to another, passing through a third in the middle, following a few rules. Writing a program that does this is a standard problem we all had in first year CS. It is a simple game, but the number of moves it takes to solve it increases exponentially with the number of disks used. The program, however, is an easy matter of devising a recursive routine to handle the game in its simplest form, then letting the computer run the repetition of moves, which it can rip through in an instant. This is the strength of computers, that they can quickly repeat little steps numerous times to get large results, making something substantial out of what for us would be trivial and unwieldy, and perhaps in some similar way this is what I hoped might happen in Misc.
In the game of legend, however, monks in a temple in the Far East had 64 disks, made of gold. The time it would take to move the stack by hand is unthinkable, forty times the age of the universe. Even a computer would take millions of years to work the puzzle, assuming it could store all the moves. And according to the legend, when the last disk was placed the temple would turn to dust, the world collapse with a crash of thunder—the point to the story being, perhaps, that something unnatural was being pushed. My post may have been influenced by another construction.
Or maybe nature, taken head on, is a different beast.
At any rate, Towers got big response from the programmers in Misc, a raft of encomiums that may or may not have been sincere, along with solutions in several languages and debate over whether or not recursive routines made best use of a computer’s resources and code for alternative solutions. And links to sites with Java applets to play the game on screen, some in 3D, and to sites with similar games, their programs, to the vast shareware libraries of the world, ever growing yet larger.
The game was also a favorite with mathematicians, who joined in with number theory and different versions of the legend, of who did what where and what was supposed to happen at the end.
But I also got threads on the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, explanation of the forest of concrete piling that held it up, and of the massive moving damper at the top of Citigroup Center in New York that controlled its sway. On the explosion of development around the Pearl River Delta in China and in Houston, on Houstonization, the freewheeling, soaring construction everywhere. On the projects of Rem Koolhaas, postmodern styles and theories. On the Claes Oldenburg baseball bat in Chicago and Christo drapes around the world. And threads on the web itself, online communities, virtual cities, other virtual realities, their virtues, followed by discussions on computer technology itself, in the abstract, and its potential, which was boundless in expectation but thin on application.
On top of these came other apocalyptic visions on other ways the world would end, drawing from legends from across the globe and back into the ages, and the latest from astrophysics.
And Towers still took other unexpected turns. Vietnam today, arguments over normalization of trade, debates even on the war itself that I didn’t know were still alive. Cold War musings, where we were now, if anywhere, where we should go from there.
And there were still other turns, many, but so seemingly tangential that I can’t think of any connection that might resurrect them in memory now.
It is possible that what I was after wasn’t so simple after all. And that simple things, compounded, can quickly get out of hand.
Someone soberly noted, however, that the game was called Tower of Hanoi, not Towers, that it was created by a French mathematician only in the 1800s, and that the legend itself was made up to popularize the game, which left me doubting everything that had come before.
Another link took me to a site that had a version of the game with all 64 disks and allowed visitors to move them, and according to its counter quite a few had come. It didn’t say what would happen, however, when the puzzle was done. I suspect the site was a deadpan joke, though maybe not.
It was in the Towers posting that the mood of Misc most emerged, yet remained the most elusive. Tongues were in cheeks everywhere I knew, though I wasn’t sure where or why. Aware of itself, self-confident, and to a heightened degree self-conscious, Misc, also appeared naive and fickle. It acted as if it had seen everything under the sun and that nothing could shake or surprise it, and yet still held before itself an unqualified but unspecified wonder. And while it didn’t seem that there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be done, or at least Misc gave this impression, it was hard to imagine anything that might match this wonder or Misc would think worth doing.
I’m still not sure what I was really trying to do myself with my questions, except maybe put love, my life, and my world together in some meaningful way, maybe find solutions. I may not have been trying to do anything, however, other than occupy myself at a time when I needed some distraction, and Misc may have been doing the same. I suppose in some cosmic sense this all we do anyway. Yet the energy of Misc was compelling, its diversity and its sudden growth at least cause for marvel, and I was seeing something new every day, and thinking about the things I had never thought about before, and wondering what else might be out there, waiting. The threads took me out so far, away from the places and things I knew, away from my home, the state, and even outside the country. And even when I was inside it I still thought I was seeing another place, that the America I thought I knew was virtually or in reality somewhere else.
And so it went that summer, when not working for the dotcoms or taking care of Allen, I waded through the threads in Misc, trying make sense of all they said.
And in the posts in ducks and snow and towers, and everywhere in the Valley, in the country, in the world, came talk of the Nasdaq and hot tips and industry musings, the bar of our expectation being raised every day.
But Phil must have gotten overwhelmed by what had happened to his site, or maybe fed up, or had moved on to something else himself. Whatever the case, late that summer he asked me if I wanted to take over. As with K, I never heard from him again.
Misc and the rest of WCX now rested on my hands.
Our coach’s son kept his composure and whatever else he had.
An infield hit loaded the bases, no one scoring.
And while the next batter connected and hit a hard line drive, it went straight to short who returned the ball sharply home for a play at the plate, the second out.
But the next hitter worked the count ten pitches and finally got a walk, forcing in a run.
Still he bore down, but still he got behind in the count but still came back and battled until the last hitter, their slugger, just missed a pitch and hit a towering popup our coach’s son fielded himself for the third out.
But damage done, 6-2, bottom of the sixth, the final inning, coming up.
But now once more for a moment the field is clear, but briefly filled with moment, with the endless ghosts of endless possibilities.
Or however many possibilities might be contained in the end.
Allen, at the end of the order, will only watch.
Perspective changes when you stand at the center, when everything comes to you and radiates back out. And when you stand at the center, you have to think about what you want and your motives, about who you are and what you might become, how you might influence the shape of the world. But you also have to put yourself aside and listen and be guided by all that is around you so you don’t become corrupted and spoil the picture.
It wasn’t so much wasn’t responsibility I felt as a large desire that I might in some way harness and direct. All the energy, all the knowledge that had gone into the posts, and all the voices, a membership that was growing every day—there had to be something we could do, if we ever came together. Change of some sort was in the air for better and/or worse—who could tell?—and maybe we could reach some common understanding, perhaps even mobilize to help direct its course. But there was so much in Misc that was beyond me. Everything seemed germane to something yet at the same time esoteric. In my work I had learned to manage size and complexity, but I couldn’t find any layers to sort my way through, much less project how Misc might coalesce or where it might go from there.
As for myself, while I have some basic strengths and at heart I don’t believe there is anything about my character offensive, I didn’t know what I had to offer, or even what I wanted. Finding myself was why I entered WCX in the first place. Also I had no experience. All my efforts up to then had been put in making systems for others to govern. I hope I was moved, as I think we all were, by a spirit egalitarian, though I’m not quite sure what that means. A moot point, though—really I had no other choice.
My only plan, then, was to do what I had been doing all along, just get started, see what worked, and build from there, in the meantime keeping everything provisional, my sense of myself, of the future of the world.
I had to spring for a broadband connection and settle a few minor legal issues, but technically there wasn’t much involved at all, just a matter of setting up my machine as a server, installing the forum software, then downloading the databases of member info and all the posts and plugging them in—only a few weeks’ work to get it up and running. My system was Linux, of course. My faith in open source had only grown.
Esthetically, I wanted to keep WCX as it was, simple and direct. No graphics, only text. Let us speak for ourselves in words and not entice, nor diffuse our intent with pictures. We could add links to them if we felt they were needed, as we had been doing before. There was ideology in this decision as well. Graphics files can get quite large and come in different formats. Access to a forum should be quick and universal; WCX had to reach all browsers and connections and not slow down entry to its gates. And practically, I didn’t want to tax my server and not leave room for growth.
My real problems, then, were organizational and political, if any distinction can be made here. What we did, however, would depend on who we were, yet who we were would determine what we did. So my first step was to establish the terms of the group. I created a new forum, Call to Order, which I put at the top and where in separate topics I addressed the issues of deciding who else could join, whether content should be censored, and how miscreants should be handled. I also suggested an election of moderators for the different forums so later I could pass control. I even left open the possibility that someone might take over my spot as administrator down the road, as I thought my stay was temporary and that someone more capable would turn up. The only thing I didn’t do that other forums did was give my email address. If WCX had issues, they should be brought out in the open, not to me.
Once we got organized and if we were moved to act, I planned to create another forum, Call to Action, to set an agenda. In the meantime I left membership open, as Phil had. A quick count from the database surprised me—our ranks had grown to over ten thousand.
But moderators had to have forums to moderate, their forums category topics. And who we were and what we talked about and what we might do would depend on what we knew and what we wanted, none of which was clear. Yet in spite of its confusion, or maybe because of it, I felt the topics should come from Misc where our interests were broadest, the participants most varied. Several nights were spent and lost, however, trying to come up with a scheme of classification. I tried the standard categories—politics, arts, education, environment, and so on—but much of the discussion didn’t fit any of them well, or crossed borders and could be placed in all. I experimented with other schemes and got the same results. So I had to assume Misc knew what it was doing, and even if it didn’t, or didn’t yet, Misc would have to be the ones who figured out the scheme. Maybe once issues in Call to Order were resolved, topics and an agenda might emerge.
I needed some kind of organization, however, so I created three more forums, Ducks, Snow, and Towers, the largest of all the discussions, and pulled out their threads from Misc and placed them there, several nights’ more work. Perhaps it was because they were arbitrary categories that I thought they might work, at least for time being, as what I was after was so uncertain and what I was dealing with so scattered that whatever needed to be done might best be reached by random hits. Or maybe there was a logic in them that I couldn’t yet see, that they were the three distinct points that determined some large circle whose border was still beyond me. Beneath Ducks, Snow, and Towers, I put another Misc with all the threads left over, just so we’d have a misc. for our miscellaneous needs and in case something else might take hold.
The order of the tech sections, however, was apparent, and I left them as they were, though to simplify the homepage I made them subcategories under a forum I called Means.
Finally, I added one more forum, Services, which, much as I hated to think this way, was in effect advertising, the fuel of dotcoms. But I thought Services might give WCX access to out-of-the-way firms in tune with its interests, and that only such firms would post an ad. In keeping with the rest of the forum, I wanted to make Services simple, fair, and picture free. Any concern that wanted to place an ad there had to follow this format, a brief heading in bold, which when clicked led to a text statement, followed by a link to its site. Let businesses explain themselves and defend their goods in words, as we did. That way the small firm would have equal footing with the large and the site wouldn’t be clogged with banners and graphics that would take more time to load. I did legacy in Slak, however, who decided to stay on. Its banner ad with grunge type and a lounging chip provided a familiar face for the transition and I hoped would help keep the tone of the site subdued.
Really, I didn’t see what I proposed so much as adverting as just giving those firms a chance to tell us what we needed to know and might in fact find useful. I did, however, ask for payment, but I wasn’t out to make big money. I didn’t even expect to break even, rather wanted to make enough to allow WCX a future, if it had one. I didn’t think the ads, given their format, would get enough attention to justify the trouble for advertisers or me of counting clicks on the links. So I would simply ask them to pay what they thought their ads were worth, suggesting a modest two hundred dollars a quarter year for large outfits and fifty for small, letting them decide what size they thought they were. Payments would be handled online through a third party that would give me reports and deposit money in an account I set up for the forum.
Services did get heated debate in Call to Order, but opinion was evenly divided. Commercialization, selling out, many screamed. Not selling out but fighting back others countered, some of them claiming that democracy had bypassed Washington, that the real action in this country, and not just in this country but in the world, was online, that we were voting now with dollars and bits and shares in the market. My only point was that we mentioned brand names so much in the tech forums that we were advertising anyway, though that didn’t slow down either side. Some in both camps accused the other of being Marxists, some in both used Marx in defense, and the battle took off on lines pointedly personal or horribly abstruse. Too much over nothing, I felt, because I doubted we would get very many subscribers.
Meanwhile an obituary for Marx appeared in Ducks, and another for Adam Smith in Towers, which set off still more chain reactions in Snow that ran for pages.
I don’t know if I was naive or hopeful in what I did, if a distinction can be made here, either. But I didn’t expect much of anything, in fact my only concern was that the site would die the weeks it was down. Yet the first night, after I checked my settings and booted up, I sat and watched but didn’t have to wait, as WCX picked up where it left off and my screen quickly filled with new posts.
After that, it was all I could do to keep up.
Actually, his mechanics look good, as far as I understand baseball mechanics, Bear, the Dodger pitcher, this throwback from our past, now warming up. He winds thickly, but goes back slow and straight, without quirks or embellishment, and releases with unhurried bulk propelled by a strong push from his legs, the motion only interrupted by a heavy skip when he lets go, a recoil of flesh in his jowls and stomach. And his eyes are on the ball all the way in, and on his face there is no look of guile or planning or anticipation or memory, memory of the homerun he gave up last inning or the strikeout of the little kid who is my son that got him back on track, memory of anything, not even a look of recognition of what he’s doing, but rather a blank, outward expression of following, as if he’s not the one determining the pitch but the pitch is guiding him and he’s just going along for the ride.
Which is all he has to do this last inning with a four run lead.
And the ball pounds as heavily as before into the catcher’s mitt, a heavy thudding in a light that has begun to dim.
The debates in Call to Order should have tipped me off as to what was coming. The topic on censorship got as much reaction as Services, but on this issue WCX was unanimous and opposed. Not only were they confident they could handle anything that came up, they believed they should. Free speech was invoked, and even hate speech and gross sex, the cases they most argued, they believed should be tolerated, which struck me as odd as we hadn’t had either in the forums. I felt WCX was eager to be tested, that its mood was bring it on. But compared to what we all could see elsewhere on the Web and probably had, anything that might appear in words in our forums would be tame. And I couldn’t argue against the principle, though I sensed maneuvering in the discussions, that the real motive of some was to protect topics close to them that others might reject.
Similarly, WCX was against any hard rule on offenders, except for spammers, again arguing they could and should deal with anyone else who turned up, though they couldn’t settle on a clear definition as to what was spam and what was not.
On the issue of membership, WCX couldn’t reach any consensus at all. It was also here the various factions within the group most made themselves heard. Most of the programmers and their followers didn’t care and thought there should be no criteria at all, many of them arguing adamantly that keeping things open was what their trade was all about. Many in the industry who weren’t programmers, however, and the tech theorists, or those who sounded like tech theorists, along with the educators in the forum, also embraced fair representation yet at the same time pled the need for background in the technology, claiming that only those who understood our devices would be able to use them well, which struck me as odd again as our devices were getting more and more simple to work.
The same was true for many academics, or those who sounded like academics, their criteria divided by the lines of their disciplines, though sometimes crossing these. Their ideological stance was sharp and self-effacing, their fervor a scorching light before which I think we all were supposed to wither then maybe see our way clear, but their arguments were hard to follow, in part because of their language, in part because much of their support came from lengthy MLA citations, lists of names and years within parentheses, identifying, I assumed, the works of other academics who backed them up, few of the names familiar, or familiar at least to me. Those posts led to more debate, or I assumed it was a debate, as the threads were comprised largely of more citations with the only differences I could see being that the lists were longer and the years of publications more recent. There may also have been factions within their factions, but I couldn’t tell.
Inevitably and probably necessarily, politics of some sort lay behind all the discussions, but aside from that of single issue groups such as the environmentalists, I wasn’t certain exactly what the politics of the others were. Most sounded moderate to left, and in principle were opposed to criteria, though they seemed a little smug, perhaps believing that only like-minded people would join. They didn’t name party affiliation, however, or that of their opposition, perhaps because they assumed everyone knew who they were and that their opposition couldn’t be taken seriously and wasn’t worth mention. Other posts began to appear however, and in great numbers, that argued the need for careful selection. Their criteria for membership had the cue words of “basic values” that made me think they came from the right, religious or other, and were trying to get a toehold in by making some vague but universal appeal. These posts got strong reaction from the first group, or maybe from still others, who rejected their values and countered with basic principles, this time adding their own set of criteria, no more concrete and I suppose just as universal, which set off several more rounds of debate, both sides pumping themselves up by prostration before something otherwise and beyond, these followed by yet more debate where I lost track. Ideas and ideals were so abstractly couched and the arguments so diffuse that it wasn’t clear what the differences were between one set and the other, or even who was arguing against whom, whether it was left against right, or far right against the merely right, or far left against the merely left, or those in the middle lashing out against both sides.
Another group seemed political, though I couldn’t place them anywhere on the scale left or right, as they talked as if they had moved past such distinction into some new world that belonged to them, who believed they who were the ones who should join and set the course. Others approached anarchy, whether for ideological reasons or for its own sake, whose sole criteria was rejecting anyone who set criteria. Others were decidedly apolitical and just wanted to keep things loose and wild for the hell of it, which, given all the dissension, is what I had to do for the time being.
Criteria for moderators got the same arguments from all sides, but were stepped up yet a few more degrees, with one group who called itself One-eyed Jacks claiming we didn’t need no stinking moderators. I put elections off to a later date.
Still, all the dissension in itself gave me heart because it meant WCX was involved, and my hope was that once the debates ran their course WCX would settle and get down to business, which I thought would be in everyone’s interest, though it wasn’t always apparent anyone was listening to anyone else.
One thing I didn’t have to do was solicit members, in fact I intentionally didn’t do so because I wanted to start slow and build gradually. Every time I checked the database, however, I found the list had grown, and at an accelerating rate. Within a month our ranks had tripled. Word of mouth, I suppose, which can spread quickly on the Web. Also with all those now online looking and with all the topics broached in the forums, search engines might have brought them to WCX. The numbers didn’t necessarily mean anything beyond a whim, as all that was involved was a quick registration process, automatic and without commitment. Yet the software kept track of the amount of posts for each, and most were active.
I don’t know, however, why they stayed once they found us. Usenet was still going strong and there were other forums on the Web older, better known and focused. Maybe some rushed in just to keep someone else from getting the upper hand. Or maybe it looked like something was happening, or was about to, or might, and they got in case it did, but that presupposes some intent and purpose. It’s possible the attraction of WCX came not from what it was, but from what it wasn’t.
Still the numbers were encouraging, yet at the same time problematic, as the larger the forum grew, the less likely it would ever come together. Not just the numbers, however, because the more it grew the less sure I was who we were. Email addresses, from those who gave them, provided some clues. Many had institutional accounts, and their addresses gave the names of their institutions, though I started getting .edu’s and .org’s that were unfamiliar and looked a little strange. Individual email accounts were getting cheap, though, and in most I saw only their ISPs and whatever name they chose to put before them. These and their usernames gave some indications, hacker puns and snips of code, coded references to cultural figures high and low. But most were only abbreviated real names, or I had to assume that. Some were just anonymous tags, arbitrary strings of letters and numbers. Then again for all I knew they were cryptic signs of something else out there I didn’t know.
The forum kept profiles on each member, and there he could put his profession, her interests, his or her hometown, though many left these blank and I had no way of knowing what the others put was true. The cities that were listed crossed the nation and reached out into the world, which suggested we represented something far and wide, if anyone was honest. But even among those who gave this information or could be identified by other means, I couldn’t make any correlation between members and the forums, who participated in which and what that might mean. A great many participated in several, some in all, some just in those that matched their field of interest, some in forums wholly unrelated.
What I didn’t ask for were their real names because I wanted to protect their identity. Besides, especially with the numbers, there wasn’t any practical way of checking up. But I wasn’t sure anyone was who he said he was, or if he wasn’t a she, or if several different members were actually one person, or one name stood for many, or if he or she did what she or he told WCX she did, or he or she or they meant anything they said.
But after all, ours is a free country where we should have a place to freely speak. Some might be emboldened to show their true selves online and say what they might not say before the eyes of a crowd. Yet they would have an online presence that would have to answer to the others, and build their trust to get them to listen. Anonymity presented temptations, power or psychological side trips. But who was to say that an alter ego wasn’t worth hearing and didn’t touch on something vital, maybe wasn’t in its own way true, that needed to be heard wherever it might lead? And anything such a voice might say would still have to pass review. If WCX couldn’t see the deception a post masked, then that was the problem WCX needed to look at and would have to hash out itself.
In many cases it did. Posts in Snow that misrepresented the Chechen rebels and denied Russian army abuses were traced to agencies in Moscow; http://www.makah.org, purported to be the official site of the Makahs, a Washington coastal tribe, was shown to be a fake started by opponents who wanted to stop their harvest of gray whales. It took Snow a while, however, to discover that the essay “Pre-imperialist Hegemonic Subtexts and Polymorphous Perversion in the Poetry of Jacques Villon: Pimp Daddy Works the ‘Hood,” published in an academic journal, was a hoax by someone bucking academic trends, though discussion on it continued well after, many claiming that authorship was beside the point. In Towers the Nigerian bank scam proved to be a familiar face and was quickly dispatched, as was the post in Ducks vaunting Bush Jr.’s stellar record on the environment.
While the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle was hit on all fronts, the primaries, coming up, only got scant mention in any of the forums, and I got the sense that WCX felt the election was beneath them. Or maybe with the economy going well, or at least the indicators up, and no war in sight, they didn’t have hard issues around which to gather, though it’s hard to believe there weren’t other matters that should have engaged them. Many, despite all the political debate, didn’t seem to be involved in any actual process, ours or any other, and I wondered what that boded for WCX if it ever decided to come together and act—or, if WCX represented the political climate, for the rest of us the following November.
Nonetheless the forums from the former Misc went on as before, and at an accelerated rate, with more environmental studies and cosmic musings, more solutions to the Tower of Hanoi problem, many of them redundant, more speculation on urban conditions and environmental shifts, more tracings of fault lines in history and fractures in lit, the material now coming not from links but the texts themselves, stats and briefs and excerpts from articles and whole graduate dissertations.
At the same time the forums moved further in—
Pet care advice and diet plans and even recipes started turning up in Ducks, which I pulled out as I thought they were trivial, but Call to Order protested and they came back with a vengeance anyway, so I let them go. Job queries appeared in Towers, and reviews of recent books and movies in Snow, who praised them for their trashiness or trashed them for their pretension, as well as personal poetry and personals, such-and-such men or women seeking same or different. More to my concerns was the legal and medical advice given in all the forums when the context of a discussion suggested its solicitation. At least WCX was providing a service and many who replied were doctors and lawyers, or said they were, and much of their advice looked good, and was either validated or corrected by others. Some suggestions, however, looked off the wall, though I had no way of knowing and could only hope that WCX knew best. I worried we exceeded our authority and ran legal risks ourselves. But if anyone suffered from a bum steer, at least he or she didn’t say so.
And further out on further tangents—
Dinosaurs and other extinct species showed up in Ducks, along with electric sheep, while the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch heated up Snow. In Towers came Sputnik and cloning and the chess games of Paul Morphy. And imaginary cities rose, space colonies and metropolises of utopian visions, the cities of the future from the past, with links to sites showing pictures of winged cars and fantastic buildings, streamlined wonders that I suspect were supposed to draw a smirk. They also spelled out Y2K scenarios, painting a picture of factories stalled, banks and agencies mobbed, airports closed, a nation shut down. I think once again they were just their giving imaginations a run, though with all the old code still around of the sort I saw in Detroit there was room for doubt.
More tongues were in cheeks, I was sure, pointing now in all directions, or maybe not, maybe there was a pointedness to the tongue pointing because many seemed dead serious and seemed to be pointing to something, but I had no idea what or where, as there weren’t any threads that might tie anything together in any meaningful way. If I had to describe the mood of WCX, I don’t know how else to do it but repeat verbatim everything that was said and see what kind of picture that might make.
It was possible, however, there was some larger picture emerging that had not yet come into focus, or that at any rate was my hope.
But some threads simply defied logic, or any logic I understood—
The Ofili painting that caused such a stink in New York that fall—a portrait of an African Virgin Mary ornamented with cutouts of porn and elephant dung—got lengthy discussion in Towers and Ducks, but none in Snow where I thought it belonged. More than the scabrous delight and outrage against threatened censorship that I expected came expressions of affection, even reverence, and a kind of awe, though one that wasn’t religious or esthetic. Not faith, more like its opposite, but still something that had its feel. I checked the link to see for myself and found the painting rather touching and sweet.
Cargo cults sprang up in Ducks and invoked similar reactions, with special attention to John Frum—cargo cults the religions that began in the South Pacific in World War II, inspired by natives’ awe at all the money and goods American soldiers brought, the dollars and jeeps and planes and candy and canned goods, whose rites were designed to bring their magic back; John Frum being one island’s saint, veneration of whom was still going strong by natives who every February donned GI uniforms and raised our flag.
And reactions were the same for the tech stocks and dotcoms, the talk of all the forums, whose threads spread like roots and seemed to hold them up. The online pet and grocery stores did not appear in Ducks, nor the book stores in Snow, nor the tech infrastructure firms in Towers—again placement defied logic—but I got the sense those were just mundane details, that more was at stake than flea collars and lettuce or novels and histories or fiber optic lines and routers.
I thought all the posts belonged in Services, as ultimately there was the issue of making cash. WCX was obviously heavily invested, and in many cases I suspected they came from the firms themselves or from speculators pushing up a stock before they unloaded. Word from the VC pundits on Sand Hill and the business journal prophets and the guys on CNBC passed freely, along with personal views, but the arguments did not fit on any balance sheet. Stock valuation had moved to another level, where earnings went out the window and what was measured was potential, the profits belonging to a future that was fast upon us but on which no one could put a date. In the case of the dotcoms this potential could only be measured by the number of eyes on their sites and the money spent in advertising to get them there.
There was reason here, as the firms had to build first and get in quick and attract a consumer base if they were to stand a chance, but their talk tended more to exposure than profits, seeing and being seen. Money, or the prospects of making it, was largely what they talked about, yet it seemed to be both the point and beside it. While I’m sure there were opportunists going along for the ride, gauging when to pull out, and I don’t think anyone really believed all that was said, at the same time I believe everyone believed everything with all his heart, whether she had invested or not. Burn rates, the speed with which dotcoms ran through cash, had mystical power and were a matter of personal pride. Sharing them contributed to the communal vibes, and to what everyone had in sight and was being pushed, to what the Nasdaq, which in a few months had risen over 2000 points, seemed to reach for and push itself, whatever might exist beyond seeing and being seen and being counted, what might break free from the horizon when they forced it and it unhinged.
The Means forum went on as orderly as before, with its own debates, still the platform wars and others, and its talk of upgrades and incompatibilities, of hardware architecture and ways to overclock chips, the hackers pushing some horizon themselves.
Services, to my surprise, provided useful information about subscribers’ products, at least at first. The products themselves—more hard- and software from small suppliers and several of the large, specialty books, out-of-the way services, handcrafted furniture, other tools for the day-to-day—were useful, or had this potential. And even though I didn’t solicit the ads, I got quite a few. What surprised me more was that even though I had an honor system that I didn’t plan to enforce, not only did they all pay, but almost all paid full price, some even more, no one accepting my distinction of large and small. After only a month WCX was well in the black.
The new Misc forum I created, however, completely fizzled out.
Now the bear is ready, and he now stands and waits, his loose bulk at rest atop the mound.
And now it is time, down four runs, for the Giants to face bravely what remains, what already has been concluded but still has to be played out.
Or this, at any rate, is what our coach is trying to do as he talks to our players before they leave the dugout for their last at bat.
July 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
Almost without motion, without expression, Willy sits in the chair beside my desk. Short, thin, yet tough; white, but dark, reddened with age, maybe with dirt; his long face vacant, yet grave, yet durable, yet distinct with deeply cut features, yet pensive in the branching, in the involution of its complex lines—he seems large, and older than he probably is.
He leans forward and stares in my direction, but does not see my eyes or speak. His eyes, yellow, hard, and dull, glisten like glazed pots. And looking at him, at his empty gaze, at his taut jaw, at his thin lips split and dried shut, you would think that he has never spoken before in his life, or if he has, will not speak again. Only his hands move, above his lap, as if he is trying to join them but misses. I can’t remember if I said anything when he came in or if he replied, even though he just got here. A presence like his is disconcerting.
I sit back in my chair, trying to decide what I am supposed to do. I’m in a lousy mood and can’t shake it. Seeing Willy has sent it somewhere else, but nowhere higher. It is cold and gray out, but hot inside the building. Willy hasn’t taken off his coat, though, a denim jacket whose blue has faded. He also has on ribless corduroys and a pair of cowboy boots whose baroque tooled pattern has become obscured by the white cracks of wear. Nor has he taken off his hat—
It’s one of those fleece lined leather caps with a visor, turned up, ear flaps, down, and a strap that dangles by his chin. On anyone else the hat would look moronic. On him, I don’t know what to think. Then again, when you’re down, simple things make little sense.
There is, of course, something about him, but in this job we see all kinds and learn not to take notice. Better to be patient until he says what he wants. His is a silence I am reluctant to disturb.
No smell of booze, however.
When the receptionist said there was a Willy Newhouse in the waiting room, the name didn’t ring any bells. It is easy to forget names and faces here—I have a caseload of over two hundred—but I don’t see many men. AFDC—welfare—is for kids and their mothers. Last week the only guy I saw was Freddy Angel, who was working an angle to claim his ex-wife’s check. Not so fast, Freddy. The few men I do see usually come in to try to get IV-D off their backs. IV-D: the agency that tracks down absent fathers to collect support.
Or the name Willy, a throwback to our days of Uncle Willys, made me think he might be a black grandfather whose daughter had run out, who had taken custody of the kids and come to continue their aid. I don’t see many white grandfathers, but it is not because their daughters are good mothers.
Yet this Willy is white, and there isn’t anything about him that tells me he is trying to get out of something or take charge of anything else. There is nothing about him that tells me anything at all. I have no idea who he is or why he is here.
Reception has made a mistake.
Did he say that? I look at him. His lips are welded, his eyes are fixed somewhere on my chest. But Letty does ring a bell. Letty Newhouse was once in my caseload; Willy must be her husband. And since the case was in her name, since only Letty came for the reviews, I have never seen him before.
Then I remember: this is the man I tried but couldn’t reach all summer a few summers ago. I needed to talk to him, not Letty, to make some adjustment, the nature of which now escapes me. I assume that is why he is here, and I tell him this, though I don’t think he has followed. He does, however, watch me when I leave the room to get the file.
I feel I have seen him before—
But bells ring all the time here, and when they do they lack resonance. The things that come together seldom add up to very much.
Then in the hall it occurs to me: I’m the one who got this started, and he hasn’t spoken because he’s waiting for me to say what I want. Yet I don’t know why he hasn’t brought Letty or why he’s taken so long to come. I remember now I gave up on the case.
But Social Services is also a place where it’s easy to forget what you have done.
There’s a mob at the counter—Reception keeps the records. I weave my way up to the front and still have to shout the number of Willy’s file. Behind me, the push of clients. Hands, faces, the padding of winter coats; the smell of stale wool and sweat. Anxious voices, angry voices, the struggle to make oneself heard. You get used to it. I stay and stand my ground because I want to get back to the office. I don’t feel right leaving Willy there by himself.
But Judy brings the wrong folder. She glares at me, as if I have made the mistake, then goes back into the file room. After a few minutes, she still hasn’t returned, so I retreat and lean against the back wall, settling down. Letty’s file has probably been misplaced. You get used to this, too.
I was in good spirits this morning, almost elated, really for no reason. Moods come and go around here. You learn not to trust them. Also, you have to be careful: let yourself get too high and you only see how far you have to fall, and this is what happened, I was working on a good depression when Willy came.
Better to keep to yourself, because what I feel is not important compared to what my clients go through. Better, too, to be guarded, because they can turn on you for what has brought them here.
Next to me, the waiting room, also packed. Clients who have made it past reception. They look tired and worried—and are tired and worried—but loud voices have subsided to the low moan of boredom. Cold weather is now the problem, as winter is an expensive season. Bills pile up, they run out of money. Oil tanks empty in the middle of the month. So they come in to get a supplement to their check. Reception sends them to the department that handles emergencies, who sometimes send them to us, Eligibility, but we send them back to Emergency Services because this is not our job, and for each contact they have to go through Reception again and return to the waiting room until they lose heart and leave, or find someone who gives in and can get his supervisor to authorize a check. This is not a procedure. It just works out that way. Supplements are discouraged—bad form—but we also don’t have enough money to cover very many.
Some clients, when they run out of oil, try heating the house with their kitchen stoves, and then get stuck when the electric bill comes due. We’ve also run into a few fires.
Some come in not knowing what they want. Maybe this is somewhere to go on a winter day.
Some clients, however, know the system better than we do. Perhaps they even know us better than we know ourselves, because they know if they persist we usually do give in. They have a role to play, we have a role to play; the system keeps the game going.
Social Services is not a depressing place, though, only dismal. But here is an accomplishment, that we are able to subdue misery to the gray mood of a waiting room. The state keeps their checks at a precise amount just below what they need so that they scrape by without feeling too comfortable in the bosom of the state’s good grace. Because the state has more than the feelings of clients to weigh. Mood management, after all, is what we really do. A balance has to be struck between the guilt of those who see the poor as the saintly oppressed and the outrage of others who see demons on our backs. And because Raleigh answers to Washington, we have to consider the mood of the nation as well. Race, whatever is left of our old Southern business, complicates the equation one factor more. Like fashions our regulations change by slight degrees to reflect the shifts in mood. But it’s not easy telling devils from angels, someone’s benevolence from another’s malice. Everyone feels queasy about welfare, so it has to be kept out of the way, in its place. No one can stomach his ideals very long. If I side with my clients, it’s because the other players are harder to take.
It’s a difficult job, modulating the conscience of the world. And it’s a hard world, but it’s delicately constructed.
I’m on my fifth—sixth?—year here, still holding. Eligibility is largely clerical work: we fill out forms and add up numbers. There are other jobs at Social Services where I could make better use of my skills, other agencies where I could apply—and I have looked into these and I am going to school nights to get a MSW—but I feel I should stay put, because it is here, in Eligibility, that I probably do the most good. At least I get something tangible—money—into my clients’ hands.
Besides, after the last round of cuts, hiring is off everywhere.
Judy brings the right folder this time. Holding it, gauging its thickness, touching the softness years have worn into once stiff cardboard covers, seeing the fleshy beige color, I remember two things: Letty is still in my caseload, but also Letty is dead.
Willy, wifeless, sits in the chair beside my desk.
I carry the folder back through the institutional silence of our halls. Over an inch of forms—it is heavy, and feels heavier with what it no longer contains. I try to shape the appropriate emotion, but it is not sadness I can create. The best way to show compassion is not to give it. Clients neither want nor need nor believe our hearts. And my feelings won’t bring Letty back, or make his life or my work any lighter. There is no reason to add the weight of my sorrow to the burden he must presently bear.
Better, sometimes, to go under. It doesn’t matter what I feel. Still, I have discovered this much, the virtue of distance.
He is staring out the window when I return and doesn’t look at me when I sit down or at the file I rest between us on the desk. The coat lies in a heap beside his chair; the hat has been strapped tight around his jaw.
I apologize for the delay. Willy doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. I ask him if he is comfortable. He looks at his hands; his fingertips touch. His expression has not changed, or rather he has not found one.
I’m down. Willy is wherever Willy is. I won’t be able to bridge the space between us. I start to mention Letty, but what can I say? What is there to say? What else is there to do, what else can I do but get on with it?
I flip through the file, trying to figure out what needs to be done. After a few months here, names and numbers bleed together, and only through our forms can we find the order our grace has given. On the right side of the folder, Food Stamp forms. Below Food Stamps, agency memos, my notes, and other stuff we don’t know where else to put. On the left, AFDC review forms, the latest, mine, on top. Beneath mine, other reviews in other hands, gradually, increasingly yellow, filled out by the caseworkers before me, none of which I’ve had time to read.
Starting at the bottom, with the original application, I work my way up through the reviews that follow. It begins to fall into place. The check—about $200—was set up seven years ago for Letty’s two daughters from a previous marriage, Sarah and June, not long after she married Willy. The girls’ father had taken off or died—I can’t find which. Soon, a son with Willy, Sears, who was not added to the check. Sears was not eligible for AFDC because both parents were in the home. Letty was not eligible because she had Willy. Willy was not eligible because he was able to work—and did have a job. Only the daughters were eligible. The whole family, however, because of their income, could buy Food Stamps. My job depends upon understanding such subtleties.
The other reviews, a quick series in different hands, don’t tell me much, except that the family got shuffled around the department. Then I reach my handwriting, which tells me less. I return to the bottom. On the back of the application, crammed in unlined space, a long narrative from Letty’s first caseworker. He says that Willy is profoundly retarded, and in so many details of income and capability, outlines the situation of a man for whom he sees no hope. Willy must have come in with Letty for the initial interview. This caseworker also has his doubts about Letty and doesn’t think the family will hold together long.
Such analysis is not part of our job, however, nor does it serve any purpose. We’re not here to assess our clients’ character, their abilities, or their fate. And our work can distort vision; more often than not, our judgment is wrong. I remember the guy. He seemed serious and intense, but he burned out after a few years, quitting about the time I started. Letty lasted much longer at what she did than he.
Also, he was confused. Someone who is profoundly retarded would have trouble just tying his shoes. Profoundly retarded—I am struck by the term though, and find it somehow apt. There is something here, which might explain Willy’s silence.
I look at Willy. His eyes are still on his hands, restless before him. He begins working them together, fumbling, forcing his fingers in air, as if in something stiff.
He still has not looked at me.
I search for his age—57: another eight years before he can collect Social Security. On the other side of the folder there is a memo from Family Services, undated—something about child abuse. I don’t remember what this was about, but there must not have been anything to it. All kinds of things creep into our files. The memo, unfathomable in our cryptic jargon, tells me nothing. Also a memo from the fraud unit, warning me about my delay. I look back at my last review and wince. It is dated over two years ago. The law says we have to check up on our clients every six months. I’m not a stickler for rules, but I’m not careless, and the best way to keep from getting mired in regulations is to follow them.
What has happened? I go over my notes. The last time Letty was in my office, she said Willy’s back had given out, that he had to quit work. I told her he should look into Disability, though apparently nothing came of it. Going back through the Food Stamp forms, I see that I did reduce the amount they had to pay since their income went down when he lost his wages.
Letty. For a brief moment she comes alive. Also white, but also with a reddish complexion, Letty was a squat, confused, yet good-natured woman who always managed a smile, though it seemed to hurt. Now she is gone, I can only hope, to a place where her spirit brings less pain and more coherence. I only saw her two or three times. I found out she had died when I called one summer after she missed an appointment for her review, and one of the girls answered. Sandwiched between my notes, a clipping from the obits. We have to verify everything.
The next time I called, the phone was disconnected. Then I sent out four or five appointment letters that got no reply but were not returned by the post office. Later that summer, I went by the house. My notes stop there, and I can’t find anything else to account for the time since. I remember, however, why I put the case aside. I wanted to leave it alone to give the family time for their grief. I probably also knew it would be a hassle. Still, the delay—I should have eventually done something.
I remember my supervisor now, too—her memos I did not file. She told me to take care of Letty immediately and hounded me about her for weeks. The agency was getting bad press, and dead people receiving welfare was not a story we could afford, no matter what the circumstances. Besides, she said, you never know about some people.
What else is there to know?
She hasn’t mentioned the case since, however. No follow-up from Fraud—or Family Services, whatever their concern was. The last recession must have knocked us all for a loop.
But there is really only a slight technicality involved. The family is still receiving Letty’s share of the Food Stamps, yet only about twenty bucks. The check is still going out in her name, but Willy, as stepfather, is not legally responsible for the girls’ support, and they have not yet turned eighteen, so they can continue receiving the check in his name. Everyone can keep the Food Stamps—though I will have to subtract Letty’s portion—but I first have to terminate Letty’s case and have Willy fill out a new application. This is why I needed to have him come in.
I explain this to Willy and he nods without looking up. I don’t think he has followed, however, or knows what I am doing. His eyes, still on his hands, still fumbling, show not concentration but whatever its opposite is, yet an opposite equally intense.
Keep going. I pull out a fresh form and start the eligibility routine. I inform him that he is entitled to receive assistance from the state regardless of his race or creed.
I ask for the names of two people who are not relatives, who can testify to the information he gives.
No response, but his fingers straighten and spread out wide.
I look at the names on the last review.
Can I use Mrs. Wilson Porter, Mr. Justin Clyde?
He closes his hands. I decide this means I can.
Do they still live at the same address?
He squeezes his hands into fists.
I copy their addresses down.
Does he still live at the same address?
He puts one fist above the other.
But if he weren’t, he wouldn’t be getting the checks. The post office won’t forward them. The last review says he lives in a trailer park off I-85, at the edge of town. I copy this address, too.
Is anyone else living in the home, other than his two daughters, his son, and him?
His fingers fan out again.
What does that mean? Yet we’ve got a dialogue going, we’re making progress, and I continue down the page in this fashion, asking questions, looking at his hands and at the information on the last review, making my best guess. Letty’s interviews, I recall, went about the same way. The closer I get to the end of the form, however, the more I doubt what I have done.
Race?—but this is a sensitive question that we usually answer ourselves. I start to put white, then check the other reviews to make sure. The caseworker before me thinks Willy and Letty are half Lumbee. Perhaps I am wrong—his skin color suggests several shades. Newhouse, Lumbee. The name could be some kind of translation, but then again, it could be anything. Other than the cowboy boots, there is little to place him.
I turn back another year, to the worker before him, and she lists Letty as white and Willy as black. The caseworker before her says they are both black. The next checked Other for both, and the guy who took the application left the ethnic boxes blank. I can’t find anyone who agrees with me that Willy is white. Race, of course, does not matter here—though I wonder about some of us—but how can something that doesn’t matter yet has mattered so much so long be so uncertain?
I return to my notes. I did try to call the references after Letty died. The man who answered Mrs. Wilson Porter’s number did not know any Newhouses or Porters. Mr. Justin Clyde’s cousin, Mattie Hayes, answered his number and said he had moved out of state. She didn’t know any Newhouses, either. Then I went out to the trailer park—
Not a trailer park, more a scattering of mobile homes, wrecked cars, and mud among a clearing in the pines. I went out four times that summer. His trailer—a two-tone, off-white and a scabrous pastel—seemed bent, and listed on cinder blocks. No one answered when I knocked and the mailbox was empty. I didn’t see anyone inside when I stepped up to the small window on the door. Dust covered the kitchen countertops. Dry dishes were piled in the sink. What little furniture there was in the main room had no obvious arrangement, as if it had been left behind. Each time I went back, everything looked the same—
You never know about some people—
He still hasn’t looked at me—
Blood rushes to my head; his darkens with suspicion. Of all the things I should be used to here, this is the one that always catches me unprepared. It never happens the way you expect, but then that’s the way it always happens, and if there is anything familiar about Willy, this is what it is. His hands grope through air again, now in an awkward gesture of guilt. The image I had when he first came in undergoes vague racial transformations, then disappears, leaving in its wake the ghost of a fraud.
If I didn’t think of fraud that summer, it’s probably because it was too obvious, too simple, too sloppy. But he could have packed the kids off to a relative, and now live somewhere else, in another county for all I know, stopping by the trailer once a month for the check, which doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to. He probably couldn’t unload the thing anyway, which might be what got him started. And he may yet be in the trailer, because what I saw is how he lives, who he is, what I see before me. If he has come in today, it could be to find what else he can get from us, which doesn’t make sense either, but it’s how he would do this, too. There are other possibilities I can build, none of them neat, but they all come to the same conclusion.
I think of the questions I now have to ask, realize the futility, then consider calling Fraud. I look out the window, feeling angry and sick. I may have felt this way before.
The investigation would be a mess. It wouldn’t be my mess, but still it would be something I passed off, and too much gets passed off here as it is. Yet what would happen? We’d have to track down the kids, but then return them to Willy because while he’s not legally responsible for their support, he is still their legal guardian. Maybe we’d try to take them away because he’s not a suitable parent. But we couldn’t do that without a court hearing to find him incompetent, which is unlikely. And even if he’s declared incompetent, then what? They go back to where he sent them? Not without another hearing. Get placed in foster care? If anyone would take them. Odds are, whatever we do, they’d still get stuck with Willy.
I don’t know what to do.
I have to do something.
I look at him, he looks at his hands. They still work their awkward massage of the space between them, define and knead it, then, collapsing together, destroy it—but they take my anger with their embrace.
What is at stake here? Who would gain what? What is right for whom? If we pursue this, he won’t get thrown in jail, which shouldn’t satisfy anyone anyway because it would cost the state a ton. And we’ll never see the money. When we return the kids, he gets to keep AFDC, but we still have to nail him for fraud, which, though it’s not that much a month, over years runs into thousands, which he won’t have, so we’ll take a small percentage from the check, token installments for the integrity of our system. Whatever life the kids had with Willy before he sent them away will at best get slightly worse. The kids are probably OK where they are, certainly better off than with Willy. And what about Willy himself? His crime is not heinous and he still deserves some kind of life. Two hundred bucks a month is hardly plush, even if I leave things alone and he keeps it all to himself. And if we do pursue and do manage to place the kids, he’ll lose the check yet still have to pay, but then he will have nothing—
Unless he has gone back to his old job, or found another.
His hands are now apart, his curled fingers upturned, searching for what they just lost.
Not likely. But I look at my notes to see where he last worked: Triad Brick.
Memories of heat and darkness, the hellish world of a kiln—
I worked there.
I don’t know why this didn’t strike me when Letty last came in, because I had to call the place to verify he had quit. Perhaps it did. Perhaps I even mentioned it to Letty, but I can imagine how far that went.
When I finished school, I took junk jobs while I looked for real work. In one I was a brick palletizer at Triad, a complicated title for a simple task. At the beginning of each day four of us, two to a team, would enter one of a dozen large dome kilns by a small opening, climb the pile, and lift, lower, and stack bricks on wood pallets so a forklift could come and take them someplace else.
We may have worked there at the same time—
But that year is a fog. I signed up at a temp agency and was sent from job to job. Some lasted only a few weeks; others I’d quit because I got fed up with the work, the pay, only to move on to another, just as bad. Between jobs, the interviews that didn’t pan out.
We had to have worked at the same time—
But there is little worth remembering from that time, because it was a time when I was young and stupid, easily impressed, and just as easily overwhelmed.
Time at the kiln was measured in bricks: twenty to fifty bricks a pallet, depending on their size, two or three pallets an hour, sixteen to twenty-four pallets a day. Cramped between a mound of bricks and the curved wall of a kiln, we moved time, lifting, lowering, stacking, and thus diminishing it, only to return to a kiln full of bricks the next day. It was a time of endless subtraction.
Yet the fog lifts, the last seven years vanish, as if to reveal a landscape, a pattern, a world—
We may have worked there together—
But once inside the kiln, you couldn’t see who you worked with, and after a while didn’t care. All I can remember from Triad is bricks. They were sharp edged, heavy, and rough; we had to use thick rubber gloves to hold them that we’d wear out in a week. Stacked close to the ceiling, smallest on top, largest at the bottom, bricks blocked out, seemed to absorb what little light came in. You couldn’t even hear yourself think or cuss, because outside the opening fans the size of airplane propellers roared to cool us, the bricks off. As we worked, we bumped, dragged, and scraped the bricks against each other and ourselves, raising a dust the fans returned that burned our eyes and, mixed with our sweat, seeped into cuts and scratches. Our hands cramped, sometimes locked. The bricks, still warm from the firing, got hotter the closer we worked to the center of the pile, as if in some inferno. Even on the cold mornings—it was winter—we stripped to our waists ten or fifteen minutes into the day—
Except for the old man—
Who never took off his jacket—
Or that hat—
Now I see him in a kiln, crawling crablike over a pallet of bricks, his face covered with soupy, reddish paste, as if he secreted it, as if he were made of it, not flesh. Now I look at him on the chair beside my desk and see the same dark color, the same man—
I start to tell him—
But he still hasn’t looked at me.
Tell him what? He wouldn’t recognize me. And what could I mean to him if he did? I was just one of many others, and we couldn’t have worked together long. Teams changed, we came and went, mostly part-timers like me on the part-time circuit.
One day, we were together only one day—yet I know it was Willy who I worked with seven years ago. He moved slowly and deliberately, but with economy of effort, and I had trouble keeping up. I had the position on top, Willy, below. I was always stopping to straighten my back and catch my breath, and my halting labor broke the cadence of his. This irritated him, I could tell, but he never said anything about it. He never spoke about anything, or swore, or shrank, or groaned. The only interchange we had was the passing of hot, heavy bricks. Nor did he look up; he saw no further than arm’s length, than the bricks that came down in irregular rhythm—
Just as he now stares no farther than the form on my desk. His eyes, not focused, streaked with brown veins, moist but lifeless—do not show the light needed for recognition.
His hands, their quivering tendons, the large, knotted knuckles, his long, bent fingers, sinewy and scarred—clutch at something he cannot grasp.
Not a fraud—
But here he is, the man I spent a summer trying to track down, the man I once worked with one day seven winters ago, perhaps even the same day as today—it may not mean anything to him, but it must mean something. And though it may only be a coincidence, it is a large one, and like the blow that brings revelation, it strikes me with near celestial ring.
It was about the time he got married.
It was about the time Letty first came to Social Services.
It wasn’t long before the time I took this job.
And it was a time when I was young and stupid, but it was a time when I saw things precise and clear. While my body got stiff from the bending, the lifting, the lowering, my head grew sharp. Holding the bricks, I felt the weight of ideas, in the repetition of the labor, sensed an outline of new order. From the fatigue, the burning, the ill use of our bodies, I extrapolated the possibilities of meanings. And in the darkness of a kiln, I could see the afterimage of invisible cities, radiant, harmonious, and light—
The old man, one of the guys told me during a break, had been there twenty years. I only lasted a few weeks. Profoundly retarded—what could twenty years at Triad do to someone’s mind?
Not a fraud. It is no more likely he has cheated the state than it is he would realize that his wife’s death meant he’d have to come in so a name could be changed on a check. And it’s even more unlikely he has sent the kids packing. Willy is what he is, what I should have seen when he first came in, what I should have seen all along. He is a small man who has kept his family, his life together as well as he can, as well as can be expected—how much worse than any of us?—a man colored but not yet broken by the machinery of a huge and senseless plan—
But all I can do for him is finish the application so he’ll be square with the state, yet at least I have this to do. There are only a few lines left.
“Willy,” he says. “Name’s Willy Newhouse, not Will’m.”
He points to where I have written his name on the form.
And he looks at me, and his eyes flash.
And I tell him what I told his wife, that he might be eligible for Disability.
And he seems surprised, as if this is the first time he has heard about it. I tell him that if they do find him sufficiently disabled, he will recieve a check from Social Security, I will add him and his son to our check, and he’ll also get Medicare so someone can look at his back. Willy nods with me as I explain the procedure.
And there is so much more to be said, so much more I want to tell him, but I don’t know what or how—
I rise from my desk and go to the window, pointing out the Social Security building. He comes and, back bent, looks out.
But I still don’t think he has followed.
On one side of Social Security, the bus station; on the other a liquor store where a few drunks are standing. Beyond Social Security, beneath gray skies, a visible city: our city: a gray city, with buildings made of glass and steel and bricks.
The coincidence doesn’t mean anything. We did shit work together for a day. I moved on to Social Services. He stayed at Triad until his back gave out.
But his face, no longer vacant, is now eager, and as we return to our seats, his eyes, now alive, still look at mine. He’s waiting for me to say something else, but I don’t want to tell him what I haven’t yet told him that I know I won’t be able to explain. If he does receive Disability, we will have to count the extra income against his Food Stamps and it will also have to be considered for his son’s support, so the check from us I’m contemplating will need to be adjusted. My head races with the numbers, but I can’t figure it out. He should come out ahead, but not by much. I’ll have to wait several months for a notice from Social Security and then make the revision, which I will also have to explain—
If I can get him back in.
I doubt he’s thinking about a check from Social Security, however. I am afraid that, from all the letters I sent him, from my visits to the trailer that his neighbors must have told him about, from the widely spaced block letters of the words Social Services on the sign outside our building, from the hours he has just spent in my office—from all this, he might feel more is involved than my turning his wife’s check over to him or recommending other types of aid. I’m afraid he’s waiting for me to tell him something else, something he has been waiting to hear all his life.
He keeps looking at me, making me look down. When I raise my eyes, his fall, and though still glazed, once again look dull and dead. Then he looks at his hands, then begins to ply some new stuff he has found. This stuff is larger and stiffer.
I stare at the file, wondering how he and the kids have gotten by since he left his job. Their only income has to be Letty’s check.
A sweet guy, a nice man. Also a good worker. I remember this now—it’s what the secretary at Triad said when I called after I last saw Letty to verify he had quit. I asked if Willy had insurance or a pension. She said she thought we handled those things.
A pervert. Now I remember this, too. A woman phoned the agency, who referred her to Family Services, who sent me the memo in the file. And here they are, buried in the right side of the folder—my notes on the memo, dated that summer. The woman said he had an eye on one of the daughters, that we had to get that man out of the trailer, that Willy was dangerous. Family Services asked her how she knew this, and she said she knew what she knew. They doubted, however, there was anything to it. They got calls like that all the time. Also the informer was on our roll, and clients often strike at each other. Still, they staked out the trailer for several nights, as is their procedure, and didn’t see anything definite. A tossup, maybe, they said. At any rate, they needed hard proof before they could act, and let the case go. In my notes, the informer’s name: Mattie Hayes. The cousin of Willy’s reference, whom I called that summer, who said she didn’t know him. Did I make any connection then? What connection is there to be made?
A sweet guy, a good worker, a pervert—but what does anyone know about this man? What can any of us know about another?
Profoundly retarded—but how can we measure a man? How can we compare what he is with what he might have become, had his life been different, or gauge what he is or was or might have been against the endless workings of a world where things don’t work out?
Still, that hat—
But we protect ourselves as best we can.
Not a fraud—
Not a pervert—
I have to believe in something.
Profoundly retarded—I feel there is depth to what he cannot say. His silence is not the vacuum of empty mind, but has presence and weight, like the stuff his hands now try to mold. And there is something large in his perseverance, something lasting, something permanent in what must be his resolve, something monumental purely in the fact that he is here today before me. This is what I realize, the only significance my few hours with Willy might contain, that when you only have yourself to count on, you’d better learn how to count. I want to ask him how he has done it, where he has found the strength—
What I ask him is what I read from the last page of the form: Has he given his answers to the best of his abilities, does he understand that any deliberate misinformation constitutes fraud? Does he know the penalties for such behavior, a fine, imprisonment, or both?
He does not look up from his hands, still laboring with that stuff. The stuff has gotten larger.
I only need his signature to complete the application. I tell him to make an X, show him one, and rise to get a witness, but he leans over my desk, takes the pen from my hand, and pushes it against the form with his fist. He writes in large wavy letters:
—the letters falling away from the line.
He stops, ponders, then continues:
—down to the bottom edge of the page.
Twenty to fifty bricks a pallet times two or three pallets an hour times eight hours a day times two hundred and fifty days a year times over twenty years would make how many buildings, how many hueoses?
How small, how insignificant my life, I think.
He returns my pen and sits back.
There is nothing else I can do for him. I look towards the door. He looks at his hands, and goes back to working that stuff. Whatever he holds now is unmanageable and threatening, and he works it harder and struggles, and panic strikes his eyes—
It is a large coincidence that has brought us together again, but it occurs to me that our situation is really the same, that there is little difference between what I did seven years ago in a kiln and what I am doing now.
I am late for my eleven o’clock appointment.
There are others in the waiting room, waiting for me.
I fear he will sit there forever, and try to think of a way to get him to leave.
I had one when I was a kid and hated it.
What I think next is that it is time to quit this job and move on if I’m ever going to get anything out of life.
“Mr. Newhouse, I was sorry to hear about Letty.”
But it’s too much. The old fool starts to cry.
June 13, 2015 § Leave a comment
The man standing beside them in produce, squat, bald, and muscular, casually thoughtful and apparently self-assured, picks up a cantaloupe and holds it before him, examining the network of its veins. He raises and lowers it a few times, testing its weight, which makes his arm muscles flex. He is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. On his upper arm, a tattoo of a well-known planet, circled twice by barbed wire. As his muscles expand, the planet pumps against the wire.
Then he lifts the melon to his nose and smells the crater left where it was pulled from the vine.
Then he looks at the price and winces.
“No way, Jose!” he says.
“No way Jose!” Willy, behind him, repeats joyously.
“What’s that?” William asks.
“No way Jose!” he says again, giving the carrier a shake.
“Settle down back there, William.”
“Willy!” he shouts.
William was against Willy having his name, but at least he isn’t a junior, as he took his middle name from his wife’s father, about whom William has mixed opinion. He was especially opposed to Willy, but somehow it happened and stuck. And every now then Miriam and even he let Little Willy slip, which doesn’t upset Willy at all but rather transports him into a smile.
“Right. We’re going to hear that the next few days, aren’t we, Willy?”
“No way Jose!”
“That’s what I thought.”
At tomatoes William picks one up and studies it, realizing he doesn’t know what to look for.
He believes he should help out with all the tasks at home, in part from principle, in part because it is expected, though Miriam usually takes over shopping and cooking, and he has almost no experience in either. Before Willy came, they usually went out, and if he works late now, which is often, he eats at the office, the food provided all hours by a fine catering service, one of the perks at the firm.
The tomato doesn’t smell like anything and feels as hard as a baseball. He holds it like one, clutched between thumb and two fingers, and reaches back so Willy can see.
“What do you think?”
“No way Jose!”
Then he looks at the price.
“Jesus,” he says.
“Ease-us!” Willy says.
“I didn’t mean that. Don’t say that, Willy. Don’t let your mother hear you say that. Not that Mom’s religious. Not that she isn’t religious. I don’t know what your mother is. Say ‘No way, Jose.’”
“No way Jose!”
“There you go. I hope the farm workers are getting their share.”
“No way Jose!”
“You’re probably right.”
Because William does have principles and believes that fairness should be a universal given, the starting point for all discussions. At Stanford he majored in history, years spent unveiling the masks of power to show the abuses of class and race, the underside of economics. If he doesn’t yet have a clear picture of the way the world should be, he can project the lines of possibilities where it ought to go. And at first he saw his work as a way to realize these possibilities—they all did there—or at least it had this potential in a world that was transforming itself into something else. There was so much in the air, not that long ago.
He tries several more tomatoes, and they all look, feel, and smell the same. He wonders how long it will take them to ripen and develop taste, if they ever will. He read somewhere tomatoes were being genetically engineered to be hard for shipping and wonders if this is the case here, and if so, why a sign does not tell him so, and if they are and he hasn’t been told, whether or not there might be some kind of problem down the road.
He wants to ask the bald man for his advice, but the man has disappeared, so he selects four at random,
“No way Jose!”
“We need tomatoes, Willy.”
He estimates the total price, feeling inside somewhere a sideways lurch.
Economy, not being extravagant or wasteful, is also a matter in which he believes, at least in principle. But when he started work no one thought much about the actual facts of money or the basis of its existence. Their pay was good and had every chance of going higher. But not the money—that was never the goal—yet it just happened to be there, and elsewhere in the world there seemed to be plenty to go around and more was being created every day. They were the ones, after all, who helped retool the machinery that passed it around. More than their technology, and perhaps because of it, it seemed the exigencies of money itself had been transcended, part of world’s transformation. He has begun to consider, however, the necessity of putting economy into practice. The payments on their townhouse in Sunnyvale are, in fact, quite steep.
He works his way down Miriam’s list and through produce, negotiating the narrow aisles among the others—it is Saturday and the store is crowded—who, like him, sort and pick and squeeze and stare at prices. Nothing looks right to him, everything seems off in some way. But he cannot tell what is pliant because it has been squeezed several times before, nor knows what size is right or what might be abnormally small and scraggly or overly large and tumescent. He does not know what to make of smells that are faintly suggestive or too much so, nor how to read the bright colors that have been painted on skins, enticing and unconvincing. He has no idea what the skins have been treated with to fend off whatever there is that attacks them. He has no idea what relationship anything he sees bears to the natural world, about which he wishes he knew more. He is beginning to feel a little lost.
And he thinks he heard on the news the other day that some produce item was linked to an outbreak of E. coli.
What was it?
Also a little sick.
“Onward!” he says.
“On-word!” Willy replies.
“There isn’t anything that can’t be solved with spirit and a little imagination.”
It’s the way they talk at the firm.
But at lettuce a burst of thunder gives both of them a start—a recorded sound from small speakers announcing a misting spray to keep the leaves fresh, which soon follows.
He took the job in the years that followed the dot-com bust, but after the clearing out and consolidating and restructuring, the enthusiasm of before returned and the picture started to look bright again, especially for those who laid low and waited to go public. He works for AskUS, an internet search site, who revamped their pages and launched a publicity campaign, hoping to displace the other whose homepage sported only one word.
His degree from Stanford got him an interview. His major in history, however, was good only for a job in sales, though they don’t call it that. Everything at AskUS is called something else, this renaming stemming from the desire that what they do not rest grounded in the mundane. When he makes his pitch to prospective clients, he ascends into an abstruse world of technical details about the special algorithm of their search engine and the powers of their banks of servers, then moves up into an abstract realm of strategies and initiatives and global action, his talk sprinkled with sentimental buzzwords—synergism and creativity and proactive solutions—that do get a rise from his clients, and sometimes from him as well, sometimes so much so that there are times he forgets what it is he actually does.
But it is one thing to be sentimental, yet entirely another to aspire, and the place the words posit seems moved by the desire they all share that they look beyond themselves to create a better world. The firm has genuine commitment to common causes. Nor does he have to hide his views but can speak openly there. He wouldn’t have enjoyed such freedom on a corporate ladder, or maybe even in academia, where he gave some casual thought.
What he does is sell sponsored links advertising related products that appear on the page when a user makes a search, for which clients pay pennies a click, AskUS’s bread and butter. Still, there is nothing base in making and selling products, or telling people about them. And earning profits from the process is the way the whole world has gone. Any drive needs sustenance; profits will feed the future of the country, as well as theirs. The Web, all the information out there, all the hands in the U.S., in the world, that might provide it and into which it might be put—there has to potential, and possibilities that can’t even be imagined until they start to unfold. His hope is to move into product development, where he does have some input.
Tension at the firm now, however, undercurrents of uneasiness running through the grid of cubicles. However much AskUS promotes its community—and they have another word for that—programmers and higher ups in management lately have been looking at him askance, or it seems that way, as if he does not belong or is not holding up his end. He knows, however, he is not alone, and that there are other conflicts, unvoiced and unresolved. Most, the news has not been good. While they did receive favorable notice and had a successful IPO, they have been losing ground ever since. But no one gets anywhere looking back or second guessing, especially in Silicon Valley. Better not to express doubts but look ahead and maintain the spirit that got them started, which will sustain them now and on into the future. They will figure something out, as will he, whatever happens next.
He is staring at half an aisle of detergents scented and scentless, plastic bottles in colors bright and subdued with pictures of arms and hammers and concentric circle targets and sunny beaches and mountain streams and bursts of light, with many different names and signs both subtle and direct, signs, names, and pictures of cleanliness and power and purity, plotting the way to domestic bliss.
“History, Willy, is a series of moveable stories told about the facts.”
To which Willy does not respond and William adds no further comment. He isn’t sure himself where the passion of reading meanings that moved them all at Stanford has left him now. Also he has forgotten what brand Miriam uses.
He studies the labels, hoping one will jog his memory. Most, though not all, say they contain no phosphates, the nourishment that once fed the algae explosion that choked our lakes and streams. Few say what they do have, however, and he wonders about their claims of environmental safety, especially when he notes the warnings on the back, the need to keep them out of the hands of small children, for which he makes a mental note. While he can get the unit price from the tag on the shelf, he can’t figure out which might be too harsh or so soft and safe that it may not do its job, whether any can actually deliver on its claims. Nothing rings a bell and he’s on his own.
“Which one, Willy?”
“Boo.” He lunges for the soft blue bottle with a picture of mountain streams.
“Good choice. You’re a boon companion, Willy.”
“You screw up words on purpose, don’t you?”
“No way Jose!”
But he is good company, and William enjoys taking him along. His buoyant spirit, his ability to see the world with fresh surprise—Willy always lifts him and helps him see afresh himself. And there is another tendency that strikes him, the way Willy looks and ingests and pauses in rapt absorption, which may only childish yet still is mysterious and possibly insightful, though which might develop into other tendencies later that might lead him astray when he is older, where William has some concerns. He has begun to worry about what will happen to Willy when he goes out into the world, what the world, in turn, will hold in store for him.
In many ways the world has come to them. So many different faces at the store, in the crowd—Pacific Rim and India and Eastern Europe, and even Middle East, which he does not remember from previous trips, and others whose origins he cannot place, their look and manner unfamiliar. A great many don’t appear to be entrepreneurs or engineers, in fact they do not look well off at all and their faces are rather grim. He wonders how they make it here, given how expensive this place has become. Some look like recent arrivals—the Chinese couple in front of him, elderly, the wife pushing the cart, the husband strolling with his hands clasped behind his back, his chest set gracefully forward in an open, accepting pose not occidental, who stares at an aisle with awe and maybe a little fear.
William understands his reaction because he feels the same when he sees what the man is looking at, nearly an entire aisle filled top to bottom with shampoos and conditioners and hair colors running the whole spectrum, options more varied and complex than those for detergents. He attempts some observation as to what might be concluded about all the attention to our hair, but gets a little dizzy. He is relieved shampoo is not on the list.
Fear turns to dread the next aisles. Condoms and tampons and douches and lubricants—how on earth will he explain these later?—treatments for infections of the feet and groin, wart removers and lice killers, digestive and sleep aids, a host of medicines for ailments of the head and stomach—who needs all this stuff, and why, and when, and how often?—razor blades and other body cutting tools, heavy duty cleaners with concentrations of bleach and ammonia he can smell, and poisons to kill ants and roaches and mice and rats. Again many brands, many choices, all with different claims and different signs and different colors, as well as many different warnings on the front, and as they pass by Willy reaches out right and left.
“Settle down back there.”
A supermarket, he thinks, is a minefield.
He continues down the list and across the store, working his way through the traffic of carts and around the shoppers who stand back to look, fending off the noise of all that calls to him and his wallet, the calling pushed up one notch more—sticking out in the aisles, coupon dispensers with flashing LEDs, where Willy snags a few.
“Settle down back there.”
Yet dread flies to sudden rapture when he drops his guard and lets the calling in and follows it where it takes him, to an elaborate, specialized physical world of special preservatives and boosters and enhancers, compounds that only a chemist could understand, all capable of God knows what; a sheer verbal universe with a language unto itself, its own way of spelling the names of its brandz and produx—Huggies, Jell-O, Drano, Nexxus, Gas-X, Durex, Zantac, Ex-Lax, Renuzit, and, at the head of one aisle, a special on Cheez-Its—and its own way of giving special meanings to ordinary words—Pampers, Depend, Resolve, Glad, Glade, Gentle Glide, and Joy—or which frees itself from conventional meanings and creates its own; a whole new culture, or cultures, or a multitude of cultures, with styles ranging from the delicate and floral and herbal to the unabashedly ramped up, with signs and pictures that point in all directions.
Such utter diversity of voices and choices competing freely with each other for his attention, and not just for his but for that of all the faces in the store from around the world and of anyone and everyone everywhere, taking him and them all to some special place, or places, or to seemingly infinite places unto themselves—it is empowering, and exhilarating, and still something else.
But after passing through three aisles of morgue-like freezers filled with packaged foods, he feels a chill and rapture falls to somber reflection.
There lie underneath, he knows, issues of limited resources and delicate balances in nature disrupted, and of labor, of working conditions and status, of distribution of wealth here and across the globe, which, if investigated, would raise many questions. Still, the exuberance is compelling and it is hard not to believe that something would remain after the leveling of such analysis, that there is some whole much greater than the sum of all the parts, or vastly, ecstatically less, or which has nothing to do with parts, a passion that cannot be dissected or suppressed.
What would Adam Smith have to say?
Or Karl Marx?
Yet the noise is overwhelming and rapture quickly falls to fatigue. It is the way he feels when makes a search at AskUS and scans the hundreds of pages it returns.
But ultimately it is his world—he is a salesman who sells ads, one link in the business chain—something he has always known but hasn’t fully let sink in. What he hasn’t realized until now is how much he is a stranger to this world, as much as he is to the one that feeds the stuff that churns through the banks of servers at AskUS night and day, the exuberance of information, the passion of the flow of bits and bytes, of all the pennies from all the clicks. What he still cannot fathom is the revelation at a meeting last week that has spread through the firm and set faces aglow, made without irony or qualification and accepted without reservation: advertising is AskUS’s mission.
“Settle down back there.”
While Wiliam is running down, Willy grows more restless. And heavier—it’s really time to move him to the grocery cart seat. He sees far enough ahead to avoid the racks with cheap plastic toys, but at the next aisle runs into candy, towards which Willy strains and grunts.
“Settle down back there.”
And has the same problem when he pushes past the sugared cereals.
“Settle down back there.”
Fortunately, bread is next, loaves with one to fifteen grains, a superfluity of wholesomeness and roughage. Also fortunately, the name of the kind he is supposed to buy is on the list. But it’s one he’s never liked—it goes down dry and hard—and, he suspects, costs a dollar more than it did the last time he made this trip.
There are other things about the list that do not sit well with him today.
Still, Miriam manages this world, or seems to, just as she seems to manage the world at AskUS, without strain or disbelief. She got on board a year after him and is a human resources partner there, another of the firm’s innovations, a position where she has freedom to cross the borders between departments. She opens up channels of communication and passes on complaints, as well as coaches employees up and down on conflict resolution techniques, all so AskUS can stay focused and together and everyone feels he belongs and she has input and a place. His path and hers, however, seldom cross, probably just as well.
And every day Miriam comes home satisfied, charged with purpose, more so lately, in spite of the tensions at the firm—or maybe because of them? He has always wondered how she does it, and why, what moves her, just as he wonders now how she has handled most of the shopping without wearing down and losing faith. He also wonders why she doesn’t realize what he himself was late in seeing, that the people they work with at AskUS are flakes.
The mistakes he makes shopping today will not be brought to his attention, yet he suspects somehow he will become aware of them, that they will be added to an unseen ledger, where he might be in the red.
But he is projecting. She never complains about anything or brings him up short. They have a good marriage
Yet what also sinks in today is that their marriage is settling down, new territory where he does not know his way around. There may be hidden problems and false perceptions that they could put aside the first years, now waiting to surface.
But he is speculating idly, perhaps stirring up trouble. All marriages have conflicts; moving past is what makes them stronger. Besides, he is almost done and is eager to leave and go home.
Meat, rows of it, however, freezes him, where he stares at all the packaged cuts, raw and frankly red. He is not used to seeing meat this way, and the meat seems to be staring back. But he doesn’t think about cows crammed into pens and stuffed with antibiotics, but rather about the war.
What has brought this to mind?
“In Guantanamo Bay—“
“Oh, right. Guacamole. Guantanamo, guacamole. In Guantanamo Bay we strapped interrogees down and poured water over their faces, making them gag and think they were drowning. Glub! Glub! Glub!”
“Gub gub gub!”
“It’s called waterboarding. Test subjects with the CIA could only take it fifteen seconds. I don’t know if we do it anymore. I’d tell them anything they wanted, wouldn’t you?”
“No way Jose!”
“You’re a trouper, Willy. Good thing you don’t understand any of this.”
But he wonders if we are still doing it, and what else we might still be doing there now. And other images come to mind from Abu Ghraib, Saddam’s place of torture then ours, of the mass of naked bodies piled up beneath our smiling faces, of the man standing on a box wearing a grotesque parody of a Halloween costume, a quizzically pointed hood and ragged poncho-like cloak, with his arms splayed out in a suggestive pose, and on his fingers electrodes. Hovering over the images, the gross irony that no one there or higher up seemed to grasp.
He does not like the administration, of course, but at first he thought it harmless and believed the country could manage on its own. There was so much else going on, and we had our own energies to direct us. Still, when the Iraq invasion, mercifully quick, was over and the statue fell, he felt the relief we all did, that a toxin had been removed and the world could continue on its forward course.
But there has been an uneasy settling down the last years, and all kinds of things have surfaced since, here and there, in the Arab world itself with its sectarian passions, the violence that seems to feed itself.
What else might be hiding, waiting to be released?
And on top of the passions, theirs and ours, all the signs, both subtle and direct, of cleanliness and power and purity and global bliss, all the talk, years of it, all the arguments, all the pitches, our ascent into an abstruse world plotted by the technical details of our devices, and beyond, up into an abstract realm of strategies and initiatives and global action, the talk laced with its own brand of sentimental buzzwords that cut the spirit when they are heard.
What has he been thinking about all this time?
What has anyone thought?
He is glad to make the checkout stand at last but then stares at all the harried faces of our actors and singers and other personalities perched above the conveyor belt, appearing on the covers of the tabloids that headline their weight problems, under and over, their operations and divorces, their time in rehab. It wasn’t that long ago that they looked happy and healthy and seemed to be having a good time.
“Jesus, this country is screwed up.”
“Sorry, Willy. I slipped again. No way, Jose.”
“No way Jose!”
He realizes he doesn’t know what anything is really worth.
Nor does he know what kind of shape the economy is in or what its signs actually mean, nor who is getting a fair shake or not, nor who is getting along with whom or isn’t, nor where any of us are headed.
He also wonders what else he needs to wonder about and realizes he doesn’t know that as well.
And he has no idea what he will do when AskUs goes under.
At the bank card machine, while he fumbles at the buttons, demoralized and tired, Willy reaches up and touches his hair, playing with it in lingering caress.
“Settle down back there.”
But William tries to remember the last time he was touched so softly, if ever.
Off center and by itself in the small box in the grid of weathered and colorless redwood fencing that encloses and separates the other backyards from each other, before the back of the nearly identical unit behind, in the midst of all the nearly identical units, modernish and nondescript, a jacaranda, the mesh of its many slender branches, gently crooked and slightly tortured, splaying outward away from themselves yet rising together to the late afternoon sun, a complex straining yet with single intent, and appearing everywhere at the ends of the branches, in spite of the unseasonable chill a cold front pushed in last night, or perhaps, in a sense, because of it, the tips of purple buds, barely visible and beyond counting, delicate and bracing.
There is wisdom in small things, she thinks.
The world is what it is.
There is no point in racking ourselves over the things we cannot change.
But there is a natural course in the world we can follow, if we learn to listen and do not force ourselves upon it.
And even if there isn’t, we might as well act as if there were.
What are the other options?
It is only by paying attention to small things that we have any hope of changing the large.
There is wisdom in small things.
Soon the suspense of buds will be released into a flurry of silent blossoms, seemingly weightless, floating like a mist, yet substantial, whose sight will make everything else around them fade and drift, immaterial. . . .
One should not lose sight of the present, and what Miriam turns to now is what to do about a husband who may be showing the signs of several years of stress. He is not alone, and she wonders why no one saw it coming. Taking care of present concerns is also the best way to deal with her own recent bouts with depression.
“What on earth am I supposed to do with these?”
She is staring at four tomatoes.
“No way Jose!”
Willy is sitting on the counter under a watchful eye, helping out.
“No way Jose!”
“Must be something you got up from your father. The salad doesn’t have to have tomatoes. Don’t tell him, OK?”
“No way Jose!”
“You’re a saint, Little Willy.”
She puts the tomatoes on the window sill, just in case.
“Let’s see what we can do to pick your father up.”
At the small table in the kitchen, Willy sits between them in his highchair, his tray just above their plates. On the plates, the everyday plates, veal marsala, veal which had to be pounded into submission, and fettuccini, and to the side salad highlighting variations on green, everything lightly seasoned and carefully, casually placed. By the plates, crystal and a bottle of Merlot she had been saving—for what?
“You’re a wonder, Miriam.”
“It is nothing.”
He is trying, she thinks.
Willy pauses a moment to look and ponder, about, at the food before him, theirs and his from jars and boxes, a small pile of fettuccini and the veal she scraped of sauce and shallots and mushrooms and cut neatly into small pieces, small portions of the other she arranged around the plate. Then he gets down to business, sounding out the timbre of the plate with his fork, mixing and stirring and pushing food around, and picking up and testing it and debating and spitting it out and putting it back and picking up and testing once more and chewing, wholly absorbed and for the most part content.
William, however, only stares at his.
“No politics, no work,” she says.
“That is the problem.”
“No politics, no work.”
“There is a time and place for everything.”
He looks up, as if accusing her—of what?
“When one is fed and settled.”
“That is the problem.”
“No politics, no work.”
“I’m not going to talk about politics or work at the table.”
“This isn’t like you,” she says.
“Being cryptic and not eating.”
His face softens with apology, and he sets himself to eating as well, though without method or desire.
This one isn’t over.
She stops to consider a plan of action. She is not going to get into a fight. No beauty in victory and everyone loses in defeat. The best plan is no plan. It is only by not taking this head on, whatever it is, that it can be resolved. Step away and wait. Let him work on it himself. He will come back when he is ready.
It is the plan that has always worked, and when they do talk she brackets goals and leaves slots open for alternatives, and concedes and compromises where she can, then looks at what emerges. If they aren’t brought to closeness, they at least come to an agreement. Always take what you can get.
While Willy ups the tempo in his eating, William slows down, testing and debating, picking up and putting back, pushing around something else that must be stirring his stomach juice. Also the Merlot has taken a heavy hit.
This one, however, may be different.
She is not going to be the counselor: she is his wife. Besides, it isn’t easy for her to step into the role herself. Not that she doesn’t put her heart into her work, but there are things she says and does at work, the platitudes, the playacting, that she can only provisionally accept and in which does not invest great belief. It is what is behind them that counts, and where they might lead. They are only props, and what matters more is the effort. What matters most is what will be left when the props are removed, what will stand on its own.
Sometimes, however, all she can see are the props, and it seems all she does is put them up. But at least they are there, holding up. Always take what you can get.
As for AskUS, you have to start somewhere, and it doesn’t matter where you start. You might as well work at a place where there is support and some spirit, and the wherewithal to get something done. Their enthusiasm can be forgiven. Even if they mouth virtuous words, there might yet be a way to make them take hold and stick. As for AskUS’s future, thinking about it will not get her anywhere now.
But she has always admired the distance William keeps and wonders how he does it, how he sets the look of confidence and fends off uncertainty, how he manages not to get swept in and carried off.
There are times she feels that if all the props were removed, everything would collapse.
She realizes she is not eating, either.
“For heaven’s sake, let it out.”
“We are a nation of idiots,” he says, still staring at his plate.
Willy, however, is still busy eating.
“I didn’t vote for them and you didn’t either.”
“They’re not the only ones I have in mind.”
“Who else, then?”
He looks at her but doesn’t answer, his face caught between outrage and bemusement without finding either.
“I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to learn this, and I still have trouble believing it. Whenever people do mean and stupid and petty things, it’s not because they’re trying to be mean or stupid or petty but because they’re trying to do what they think is right.”
He says instead.
“Why is that so alarming?”
“It means they will never stop to realize they are mean and stupid and petty, so they will keep on doing mean and stupid and petty things, and do so with conviction and clean conscience.”
“What is new here?”
“We keep finding new ways to fool ourselves.”
“I don’t like the way things are going in this country any more than you do, but we won’t get anywhere by calling the people who run it idiots. We don’t have all the answers ourselves. And even if they are being stupid, we demean ourselves when we stoop to their level.”
“If we don’t, who will?”
“Besides, dismissing them as idiots takes us out of any discussion with them and gives them free rein.”
“They have it anyway.”
“We can look for common ground.”
“What common ground?”
“We can set the example of being reasonable ourselves and give them a chance to follow.”
“They will think us the fools.”
“Then we can let the force of our arguments persuade them, not the bitterness of our invective.”
“They won’t know what we’re talking about.”
He looks back down at his plate, still stirring.
This one isn’t going anywhere and it’s getting there fast.
She respects his opinion and has always felt he is more perceptive than she, and smarter. But there are times when she doesn’t know where he is, when she isn’t sure he knows himself, yet for some reason she pictures now a hooded man with bent head and helpless arms, standing on a little box.
He is being evasive.
He has always supported her.
Evasion is a form of attack.
He loves her.
He is attacking her.
He never judges her.
What has she done wrong?
Let it go, she thinks.
She continues. Something might yet be salvaged.
“We can at least take care of ourselves and see what we can create for those around us.”
“We don’t have all the answers.”
“It is not always easy to know what is right, but we make the best choices we can and hope for the best.”
“We might do more harm than good.”
“Then at least let us not be stupid ourselves and not do stupid things.”
“What if we are the idiots?”
“Then we can look to those around us and follow their example.”
“It is blindness.”
“It is vision.”
“It is a way to be led by the nose.”
“It is sanity.”
“It is a way to let the monsters in.”
“They already seem to be here. Jesus Christ, William, you’re being perverse.”
“No way Jose!”
Why is Willy looking at her? Was she the one who raised her voice? And now William looks at her and shows the same face.
“The problem with this country is that it lacks perspective,” he says.
“The problem with this country is that it doesn’t believe in itself,” she says, softly, she thinks, but she doesn’t know where she is headed.
“It believes in itself too much,” he says, his face moving to a clearness, beyond irony and rage.
“This country doesn’t believe in anything,” she says, still softly, and realizes she believes it.
“This country believes in everything.”
“It doesn’t love itself.”
“It loves itself too much.”
“This country hates itself,” she says, and realizes all three might be true.
She also realizes she is lost.
“No way Jose!”
And she may have raised her voice again.
“Willy, I’m sorry. Willy, William.”
“This country doesn’t hate itself enough,” he says, ignoring her plea.
“No way Jose!”
Now Willy looks at him, but William doesn’t notice.
“The country has lost its self-respect,” she says, softly, she is sure.
“No way Jose!”
But Willy looks at her.
“The country has never respected anything,” he shouts.
“No way Jose!”
“The country is too aggressive,” she barely whispers.
“No way Jose!”
“The country is too passive,” he shouts again.
“No way Jose!”
“The problem with this country is that it is a self-absorbed prick.”
Did she say that?
“The problem with this country is that it is a passive-aggressive bitch.”
But then there is a wordless bawl, and she collapses over Willy, and William joins her, both with a flurry of gentle hands.
It took him a long time to convince Mom and Dad that he was asleep, and even longer to be certain that whatever attacked them had finally left the room. He stares at the ceiling, at the many fluorescent stars, now fading, which they stuck up there to serve as a night-light and stimulate his imagination, but which, quite frankly, have always frightened him.
When he closes his eyes, he sees afterimages of other stars, and of targets and mountain streams and sunny beaches and flowers and bursting lights, and of bright and subtle colors, and along with these a multitude of strange signs and strange words, strangely subtle and subtly direct, all presided over by a vision of that open-mouthed cherub of astonishment who has appeared on jars and boxes of his food all this time and whose name, apparently, is Gerber.
There is much to think about.
He doesn’t know why Mom and Dad thought they had hurt him or what moved them to shower him with affection.
But always take what you can get.
He also wonders why they don’t say what they mean when they talk to each other instead of beating around the bush.
Or maybe they don’t know what they mean to say but are doing the best they can?
Then again, maybe they did say exactly what they meant. In which case, he wonders it means, what kind of country it is he lives in that it could contain so many marvelous contradictions.
There are other questions he cannot answer.
If the good people who make all the products we consume want us to have them so much, why don’t they just give them to us? Why go to so much trouble?
Maybe if they didn’t put on such a show we wouldn’t want them?
Or are they hiding something, and the products are not worth having, but we have to be fooled into believing that they are?
Or is the lavish attention they pay us really what matters, and the products themselves, somehow, are beside the point?
And why, in Guacamole Bay, would we strap a man down and fake drowning him instead of doing the real thing? Wouldn’t that be easier?
Then again, if there is something we want to know, why don’t we just ask someone else, or better yet, find out ourselves?
Or maybe if we jazzed up our asking with glitzy slogans and flashy smiles and offered two-for-one, then he’d want to talk?
But maybe we really don’t want to know anything and the strapping down is what matters.
In spite of the obvious differences, the more he thinks about both situations, the more he sees similarities. But trying to find a connection makes him really dizzy and hurts his head, and he has to give this one up as well.
He wonders, too, what other kids his age stare at on their ceilings and what they see when they close their eyes.
He wonders what their parents talk about.
He wonders what all parents talk about, when their kids aren’t there to listen.
And he wonders what else exists in our country that might attack them.
Most, he wonders if anyone gets along.
One thing seems fairly certain, though, that life will only get more difficult, and not less.
For some reason he feels he is standing on an enormous box and he doesn’t know how to get down. And the stars continue to dim, and the darkness grows darker, and everything is dissolving into uncertainty, and sleep is pulling him and he is weary and afraid, and as he keeps staring at the ceiling, all his questions fade as well into this wish, that there might be someone out there who could ease us.
March 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
I went to doctors all over town, and they couldn’t help me. My wife got tired of hearing me complain. I even got tired of hearing myself complain. I had reached the stage where I only had to pick up a racket for the pain to start, a sharp shooting pain that felt like a pin had been stuck through my shoulder. And when my damn arm really did begin to hurt, I finally had to give it up.
I never understood tennis anyway. The game was like some rite into which I had never been initiated. Whatever happened between the serve and the end of the point was a mystery of motion and involvement. I felt as if each time I slammed the ball into my opponent’s court I had touched off the release of a sudden fury that I could only fluster my way through in some awful kind of waltz.
The moment still comes back to me, when I’m facing a new client in the office, sometimes when I’m just walking uptown against the crowd, where I’ve charged the net and stand waiting for the return, tense, poised, and anxious—
I don’t know which makes us more miserable, the things we do from commitment and obligation, or those we do for joy.
Still, I’m sorry I quit. Somehow I think that if I had mastered the game I might be a better person for it today, more in control, more on top of things. I was too impatient: I didn’t get set, I rushed my strokes. Hell, I don’t need a psychiatrist. What I need now was a good pro, back then. I could serve, though, and hard. I will say that about my game. Win with your serve, and you only have to break your opponent’s once to take the set.
But how can you try to save the world if you don’t have a decent backhand?
The deal, at any rate, was this: if the kids stuck the program out for the summer, the Association would let them keep the shoes and rackets. They had to have the shoes. Even though Kirkwood Center was a public facility, it had good courts, which required some care. And that was my job back then, summers before I went to law school, collecting the fees, maintaining the courts—and trying to keep the public from tearing them up. Half those kids showed up the first day in street shoes. I doubt any of them had even been on a tennis court before.
The clinic was the brainchild of a local branch of the SLTA, though I don’t know why it’s called the Southern Lawn Tennis Association, because I’ve never seen a grass court anywhere in the South. There used to be a lot of clay, not the soft, grayish composition we had that everyone calls clay now, but thick red clay like the stuff that lies an inch below everywhere in the state. Even some of those raw little country towns with nothing more than a gas station and a post office used to have one or two of the old courts. It’s amazing, though, how many good players they produced. You could always spot them at the state tournament by the faint orange stain in their socks and shoes and the deep red crescent above their collars.
And I don’t know what the Association thought they could accomplish with their clinic, but then reform was in the air then—this was some twenty-five years ago, back in the 60s—and everyone was trying to do something, one way or the other. Better, maybe their reasoning, to show those kids something civil before someone else got to them. Maybe they wanted to turn them into proper Southern gentlemen. Really, I doubt they put much thought into their reasons, or their motives.
I suppose they meant well enough, though, and responded from within their means. They were, after all, a tennis association, tennis was what they understood, and tennis was what they offered. And they weren’t really a bad crowd. Nothing that snotty or exclusive about them—white collar, blue collar, even a few blacks, along with the guys who forked out ten grand a year at the Club. Everyone who played joined. You didn’t even have to be good at the game, you only had to show it a certain respect and take it seriously.
Too seriously, some of them. There were players for whom the game was an infernal labor, and it didn’t matter how good they were, their agony began the second they stepped on the court to pay penance for their fall from a heaven presided over by Bill Tilden. And tennis could bring out the worst side of others. Staid and sober men would cuss and hurl their rackets into the net with every mishit and bad shot they made. Line calls could become matters of personal injury, of righteous indignation. There would be moments when play on all courts stopped as everyone turned to watch someone who, having stormed from his side of the court to his opponent’s, stood over the tape, lowered his racket to a welter of ball marks, and then shouted for all he was worth that the one touching the line was his, as if the whole of an unfair world had reached consummation in a single point. It’s a fine line, I suppose, that separates justice from perversion.
Still, they all kept playing, they all managed to get along. And they all played at Kirkwood. Even the guys who belonged to the Club would put in an appearance. It was a community, of sorts.
At least they did know how to plan. The Association made the arrangements and had everything mapped out to the last day of summer. Members volunteered to teach and donated the rackets and balls, while a sporting goods store chipped in the shoes. An elaborate schedule was devised that allowed for rotations and substitutes so that there would be at least six instructors each day. God knows what they had in mind, because they even arranged to enter the kids in the city’s juniors tournament at the end of August.
The problem was that they didn’t know where to find the kids. They went to Parks and Recreation, who had the courts, who went to the Human Relations Council, who didn’t have anything but knew to call Social Services, who did have kids, who went to the Housing Authority, who had the bus. And, of course, Parks and Recreation knew where to find me, the public servant, and told me to have the courts in tournament shape for the first day.
I ran players off late morning so I could get them ready, sweeping twice, up and down and then across, pulling like a plow horse a large two-handled broom behind me. Then I brushed off the tapes, bringing into sharp relief the outlines of middle class obsession, given the clarity and dedication that only geometry can bring, and stood back to admire my work: so many different, well proportioned rectangles within larger rectangles laid out on a pristine gray-green field, bisected by eight nets stretched taut and tapered towards the center straps that I adjusted daily by the accepted and unimpeachable measurement, the length of a Jack Kramer plus the width of its face. Tennis, at last liberated from the dark halls of European aristocracy, from the back yards of the elite, into the wide open spaces of American democracy.
Then at noon, the bus came, on time, an old wreck, a converted school bus with “Brookview Homes” stenciled on the side. The driver squeezed out first, a fat cracker Baptist with a crew cut, who walked around while rubbing his hands together, surveying the place with ponderous skepticism. Next he looked for the nearest shade tree, beneath which he spent the rest of the summer sipping cokes and humming hymns to himself.
For a moment I wondered if the Association hadn’t found their kids after all, because from where I was standing the bus looked empty, but, as if on some unseen cue, they poured out the doors, twenty or so, and went straight for the courts. They ran helter-skelter all over them, cutting and scraping the surface with their leather and hard-soled basketball shoes. Some swung imaginary bats as they ran, while others sat on and tugged at the nets. Then a group lined up at one end, took a running start, and slid as far as they could in the grit, trying to see who could make the longest mark.
Needless to say, the kids were all black. When anyone talked about society back then, they meant problems, and problems meant race, and race meant black.
And these were raw kids. Not mean, not vicious, just raw. They were supposed to be ten to fourteen, but some looked older and much larger. Most had on jeans and ratty t-shirts several sizes too big. Their hair was cut close to the skull, and they all seemed to have a scar somewhere on them, which they wore with indifference. All their faces looked as if they had been scrubbed clean of any design or emotion, leaving only a lean, stark gaze. When they looked at you they had a way of looking through you, at some point beyond, as if you were in their way. If they were the ones the would-be reformers targeted for whatever had moved them, their anxieties or good will, the kids didn’t seem to know it.
The instructors herded them up, explained the business about the shoes, and gave a brief lecture on court etiquette. Then they took them to the storage room to pass out the equipment. The equipment should have been what tipped me off about their scheme, if I hadn’t been suspicious already. The shoes were mostly odd sizes and styles the store couldn’t unload. They had to stuff toilet paper in some to make them fit. Most of the balls you could squeeze together, and the rackets made for an odd and sorry arsenal. Ladies rackets. Sears rackets. Beginners rackets, feeble things, thin framed and loosely strung, the kind of rackets plumbers and hacks use, or the kind your father first buys you when he wants to see whether or not you’re going to take to the game, but obviously doesn’t want to blow too many bucks. And warped old models, relics from the attic, strung with brown, sagging gut, sporting on their throats pictures of players I’d never heard of.
It was the metal, though, that the kids went after, and a couple of fights broke out over who got them. There were about a half-dozen, aluminum and steel rackets with bright chrome or gold finishes, and all were split or had popped rivets. They were just coming out then and didn’t last long. The sound one made whenever a kid struck the ball was unnerving, like a cracked bell.
The equipment was serviceable in one respect, however, because after the instructors led them back on the courts to begin the lesson, it didn’t take them ten minutes to knock every one of some two hundred balls clear over the fence, and the rest of the hour was spent finding them. I had to stay late that night, filling in and sweeping over all the marks those kids had left.
The next day and the rest of the week the instructors managed something that resembled order, though not as much so tennis. I suppose from some perspective it might have looked funny, watching the staunch and not so staunch Southern fathers try to tame so many wild kids. Then again, I can’t imagine what that point of view might be, because even though the kids settled down somewhat, the instructors grew increasingly on edge. You could see it, as some leaned over the net and spoke to the kids with exaggerated politeness, or others just stood there and looked above their heads, working to regain composure, that their patience was being strained, as was some principle or reservation within they hadn’t resolved, perhaps were seeing for the first time. The kids picked up on the instructors’ frustration, though maybe misreading it, and they followed their advice as if being punished, sullenly hitting the ball and not caring whether it cleared the net or landed hard in the back fence. They had probably seen this routine before.
The second week substitutes had to be called in.
The third week was the start of the worst heat wave we’d had in decades. Eight days running the high hit over a hundred. The sun blared like a warning throughout the town, stirring memories of other summers and other cities, reminding us that though we had been spared the worst so far, the problems of society were not over yet. A curfew was reinstated on the coast, and there was an incident here, a police shooting in the projects, that had everyone talking about riots. This was the sense, that the unrest was some external contagion, bred in the Newarks and Watts’, not related to anything anyone was doing in the South, or to what had been going on all along for so long.
The courts dried out by noon and turned to dust that puffed up when a ball hit, or swirled in clouds with the slightest breeze. Just playing those days was challenge enough, but for the instructors the dust and heat were the catalysts that sped the transformation of their resolve into something else. Whatever magnanimity or faith the Association brought to the clinic soon turned to the look of grim tolerance.
They ran out of substitutes the fourth week, and the fifth week, with a show of excuses and apologies and complaints, there was wholesale desertion. Williams said he had to go on a business trip for a few days and never returned. Horton said it was a damn fine thing they were trying to do the day before he ducked out. McIntyre didn’t think tennis was the game for this kind of kid. Cowens wanted to know if there were any poor white kids in town. Brauer asked how they could take over where the kids’ parents had failed. Johnson was profuse in his apology and confessed he couldn’t take any more. Morehead simply quit, saying he didn’t have to give a reason. Dr. Greenfeld and Lucas, a black PE teacher, alone were quiet; but whatever their silence covered, both showed up every Monday for the rest of the summer.
Still, the kids kept coming, in fact, perversely, more of them came each week. And the bus kept coming, each day on schedule, as if nothing were wrong, bringing more and more kids to fewer and fewer instructors. The sixth week started with forty kids and just Greenfeld and Lucas, who somehow managed. Tuesday, only one instructor showed up, who could only handle a few and had to ignore the rest. The rest tried to carry on by themselves, but soon tired of that. One group started up a baseball game behind the locker room, using their rackets as bats. Another used them to attack bees swarming over the trash cans. I had to spend the hour running around to make sure the others, scattering all over the place, didn’t do anything worse. Wednesday no instructor came, but before I realized that, a handful had already taken off across the park and into the neighborhood.
The calls finally made their way to Wilson, our boss, the director of Parks and Recreation, a man who had a talent for appearing sufficiently harried in his job—when you could find him—and who bragged he’d never taken an hour’s exercise in his life. The next morning he met with Larry, the guy I worked with, and me at the Center. Wilson expressed his irritation at having been dragged from his office with a look down at the heavy wing-tip he ground into the grit on one court. The clinic, he let us know, wasn’t his idea, and he wouldn’t have approved of it had anyone asked him. However, he said, these were dangerous times. One had to be careful and appearances had to be kept up. Besides, he wasn’t going to let the botched efforts of others mar the image of his department. The clinic had started and was going to continue as planned. Against the Association itself or its instructors, however, he said nothing specific, and stared at us in a way that told us we shouldn’t, either. With a side-glance he suggested it would be an awfully fine gesture if Larry and I both be there at noon that day, even though we worked opposite shifts, to take over the lessons in case the instructors didn’t show up again. He then looked at us with a scowl we later decided meant there damn well better not be any talk about extra pay.
If any instructors intended to come back, they didn’t bother that afternoon, the following, or any other, aside from the conscientious Monday duo. I never found out if the Association pushed Wilson to get them off the hook, but doubt they did. Rather, this was just the way it happened, the way these things always happen, that messes are made and left for others to clean up. That, after all, is the reason here why government is created. The instructors eventually did return, but after work and weekends, this time to play, and Larry and I both got heavy looks that showed perhaps the anger that covers guilt, or maybe indignation that what we were finally doing was what we should have been doing from the start.
At any rate, we had their clinic now, a few hours after we talked to Wilson, and kept it for the rest of the summer. I don’t remember what Larry felt, but I was furious. Not only were we given an impossible task, not only did we have the Association’s half-baked scheme dumped on us, but I also felt as if we had been called upon to mediate the whole town’s failing conscience. Also, I didn’t know the first thing about teaching tennis.
Yet there we were, with all those kids, and I can still see not them but their life, its starkness, its otherness, and the distance and utter difference. Then as now, I was a liberal, but then as now, I wasn’t a sap. What they had gone through none of us could understand, and the only thing I knew with certainty was that what they needed would take more than manners and games we hadn’t learned ourselves.
Still, there we were, with all those kids, and we had to do something. Larry and I split them up, Larry taking half to the back courts, while I assembled the rest on the front. And then there I was, now alone with those kids, all eyes on me, and I didn’t know what to say. I looked back at them, restless under the noon sun, feeling awfully white and a little scared.
“You’ll probably find,” I told them with the only inspiration that came, “that the forehand is easier to learn. But don’t be afraid of the backhand. It’s supposed to be the more natural stroke.” I then demonstrated both, taking a few unsteady swings at invisible balls. A couple of them repeated the strokes with me, but stopped when the others glared. I didn’t know what they had already learned so decided to start from scratch. Mustering courage, I next showed them the serve and volley. No one cared about my work at the net, but several were impressed with my serve and gave it a shot. Next I broke them up into groups among the courts and told them to take turns hitting to each other, trying to get them to rally—and failing. They only went through the motions without moving balls back and forth across the nets. Larry fared about as well.
Yet this became the program the following weeks because it was the only one I could figure out that might be appropriate for their level, demonstration followed by practice. Not that I saw results or had any confidence in my plan, because even the instructors who had tried and did know what they were doing hadn’t gotten anywhere. Then again, the half-hearted effort of the others must have left the kids confused and the desertion had to have had some effect. Still, I had to do something. After I broke them up into groups, I’d go from court to court, giving advice to anyone who listened. Mostly, they ignored me, treating me like an intruder. Really, though, it didn’t make any difference what I did, because as I gingerly worked my way through the desultory groups, stepping on balls, getting stares, I also kept an eye myself on the park outside and the houses across the street. Because this had to be the unspoken directive from Wilson, not to teach but keep them out of trouble.
Maybe the Association did mean well, but so what? It doesn’t matter what their intentions were, because fickle behavior can do more harm than good. But to say the road to our modern hell is paved with good intentions would be giving too many people too much credit. It’s hard to believe the Association’s real purpose on some broader scale wasn’t the same as Wilson’s. And this was what angered me most, that I was I one who got stuck to fulfill it.
I suppose if I had protested loud enough, I could have gotten out, though I couldn’t imagine any argument I might make that wouldn’t sound selfish or dumb. And much as I resented the clinic, leaving it wouldn’t have felt right. It’s the problem you run into when you go against the words behind the words. But if I didn’t complain it was because I lacked the nerve, and for no better reason saw the clinic through to the end. Yet it was hard to hold any conviction in doing something that not only didn’t have a chance but I also didn’t believe in. My only solution to this dilemma was to fake engagement without thinking about society or its problems or its motives and what lay beneath them, and try to make the lessons as interesting as I could, as much for myself as them.
The kids, of course, remained bored; their rallying got even worse. So I was surprised when a couple of kids said they wanted to play for real and demanded I explain how to keep score, as if I were holding out or keeping a secret from them. I was saving that for last, and really didn’t care if we got to it or not. Matches are tedious and dull until you learn to keep the ball in play. Also, scoring in tennis is complicated—fifteen-love, fifteen-all, thirty-fifteen, but next, the way we said it, forty-five; deuce, ad in, ad out; game, set, and match—and as I explained these details, the whole business sounded strange and silly. Still, they picked it up, and quicker and better than anything else I told them. Then I turned them loose to compete. With the numbers, I had to improvise, setting up singles on one court and doubles, triples, and worse on the others. But while the kids didn’t hit any better and it was hard to say that what they were doing was tennis—the way they played, a set could take five minutes or last into the next century—they played with a passion approaching frenzy, a relief from so many days of heat and boredom.
And the rules. They wanted to know the rules—all of them. I had to pull out the book. It wasn’t long before I heard the shout: “Footfault, you cocksucker!” Footfaults. They called each other on footfaults. Nobody called footfaults there—it’d start a fight. Even in serious match play, learning rules is as much a matter of knowing which to follow as well as which you’re supposed to ignore. How could I explain that?
I think it would have been easier for me if someone had donated tennis shirts and shorts as well. Not that I care about decorum, but some appearances count for something. Also the clothes might have smoothed the edges of some of the rougher guys. Yet I don’t know why I was intimidated by them. That harsh gaze of theirs—but maybe they didn’t trust me as well. And after a while I realized that they weren’t really looking at me or at anything. They simply weren’t looking, as if I or anything else beyond a point in their vision had only uncertain existence. Nor did they seem to know each other, even after being together almost two months. I’d ask why someone dropped out and they’d say they didn’t know him. The next day, however, someone else—or two—would come to take his place.
I suppose I got sucked in somewhat, because, standing on the sideline shouting and cheering them on or entering a match to give advice, I began paying more attention to what was going on within the fence than what might happen without. Not that I got involved, it was just hard to see them play and not have the strokes down. They still didn’t listen, but I got used to that. What was harder was when they did—and I did get a small following—because then the burden fell on me to teach them what I wasn’t so sure about myself. And when they repeated what I showed them, I grew self-conscious about my own game, seeing my form mimicked by several kids in unison, more often than not exaggerated. But I had to wince when I saw the kinks in my backhand so faithfully repeated. Then again, in watching them copy me, I saw what I was doing wrong: I was hitting down on the ball and chopping at it instead of lifting it smoothly with a full follow-through. It is the natural stroke, swinging away from the body.
What hurt most was seeing a few take interest in the game. Even with the right environment, tennis is tough to break into. When you start out there’s little return for your efforts, and however much you practice, it always seems you’re doing more wrong than right. I resisted my father’s attempts for so many years that he finally gave up on me. I didn’t take the game seriously until I was in high school, and it still took several years before I played well enough to feel comfortable on a court. But even after you’ve played a long time and think you have a stroke grooved, you find days when it doesn’t work. The game’s all control and concentration. Luck counts for nothing. And when you think about all that has to be put together just to execute a single swing, then consider that you have to repeat it consistently, hundreds of times throughout a match, you realize that beating somebody is really beside the point. You look for a rhythm to carry you and try not to get too upset for a while.
But then the kids would never even know that much, because the city hadn’t yet put any courts on their side of town. And even if they did have courts, they wouldn’t have gotten far without some guidance. Yet the Association wasn’t going make the same mistake twice by following the clinic up the next summer—and didn’t.
None of which should have been news to them. And if they didn’t know from the start, they had to have realized soon that whatever they did that summer would be as far as they went with tennis. Still they kept coming, though I don’t know why. I don’t think the game even appealed to that many. I don’t know why they came in the first place. Tennis was still a white game, maybe they wanted to break a barrier, though I doubt they thought on those terms. Maybe they came because the same system that built their housing, paid their mothers’ checks, and tried to keep them in school no matter what they learned had designed another way to contain them, so when bus rolled up and opened its doors, they decided they were supposed to get in.
Or maybe they didn’t have anything else to do.
My concern about match play was borne out. After a few weeks, despite my encouragement, their initial fervor died down to a mechanical keeping of the score. To spark motivation, I told them about how well Ashe was doing that summer, and they didn’t know who I was talking about. I showed them a picture in Tennis, and one kid said, “Him? He’s a—he’s a colored boy.” If he didn’t use the other word, it may have been a sign they were beginning to accept me, or at any rate had gotten used to having me around. It was the first time I realized that not only was race in their heads, too, but that they had their hang-ups about it as well.
The picture of Ashe, however, was only good for a day, and towards the end I had to work harder to keep them going—
Except with one kid, who never let up—
This kid was intense, and I don’t think he took his eyes off me the entire summer. He was a lanky kid who never smiled, who moved with a hitch and a stalk. And he not only looked mean, he was mean, but I suppose he had to be because of his hand. He only had one hand, or rather his left was clubbed or mangled. It must have been a birth defect—he only had the vestiges of fingers—but I never looked at it closely. I didn’t want him to think I noticed.
Rudy paid absolute attention to me, nodding anxiously at whatever I showed him, and then repeating it vigorously until I told him he had it right. Not that he ever did, but I think he would have kept me the whole hour, repeating myself, if I didn’t make the excuse of needing to go on to the others. Really, I just wanted a break. He had a way of fixing and bearing down on you as if his eyes were guns. I felt I was always in their sights, even when we weren’t on the same court, even when he had gone home for the day.
Jesus, that kid scared me.
When he wasn’t tracking me down, he was maneuvering on the other courts to get the best to play against him and whatever partner he could find. Tennis is one of the few one-handed games. Maybe that was the attraction.
We worked out a serve, though I can’t imagine how he managed the toss since he couldn’t hold a ball with his left. I never could get him to stop running around his backhand.
Rudy aside, the final week the kids not only showed no life in their play, but also had lost their wildness. It was as if their spirit had been beaten out of them. While I couldn’t fault myself and knew where to place blame, I still felt guilty. After all, in a sense I was involved—so many weeks of taming them for nothing. Yet they still showed up, except the last day when we passed out the shoes and rackets. Then only half of them came. Larry and I thought some sort of ceremony was in order, but after we fumbled a few minutes while they stared at the ground, they got on the bus and we didn’t see them again—
No, seven came back two weeks later, for the juniors tournament. Wilson said we had to stick with the Association’s original plan, though we argued the experience would be bad for them. Tennis is hard enough in informal matches; tournament play is a different game altogether. The ball bounces differently. It requires a different set of nerves. On the grit, your coordination, your composure—everything can slip out from under you quickly. The kids didn’t have much to support them and had a long way to fall.
We did what we could, waiving the entry fees and even rigging the draw so that none of our kids would have to go up against the top seeds. Maybe we even fooled ourselves into thinking a few of them at least had a shot at close matches. There weren’t that many kids in town with talent, and most of the entrants weren’t far themselves from beginners. But our vision had been blurred by having spent so much time with our kids. It was a shock just seeing them scattered on the courts with all the white kids in tennis whites, who, good or not, flashed tennis in every move they made, as if the game were in their genes. They, the whites, were polite, but then they could afford to be. They blew our kids off the courts. Hard not to wonder if that wasn’t what the Association, at least unconsciously, had wanted from the start. Even if not, the effect was just the same.
Not that poor kids can’t learn, that’s not the point. There are real clinics in the ghettoes now, and shoe companies are pulling black talent out of college for their harems, luring them with big bucks. And if blacks ever got bored with basketball, you wouldn’t see a white guy again on center court. But what does this prove? That blacks can play other sports? They’re only draining their energy into entertaining the world without tapping into its power.
And winning championships, being the best isn’t what’s important. What matters is everybody else. From the smallest local tournament to Forest Hills, we live in a pyramid of competition that recognizes only the single winner and turns the rest into losers. We don’t need games to prove our insignificance. We don’t need to find our place, what we need is a place where we can get out of ourselves—
Rudy made it past the first round, the one-handed kid.
His opponent wasn’t white, he was pink, and spoiled rotten. His parents must have dropped over a hundred dollars on his clothes and racket, not to mention what they paid for lessons at the Club. His mother stood beside me on the porch, all agog in admiration of her little prince as he stretched out at the net, who, staying there, took practice swings, showing his good club form, while Rudy waited to begin the warm-up. But when His Highness finally made his way to the base line, he declared he was ready to play.
Rudy wasn’t pretty to watch, and it drove me crazy to see him still running around his backhand. Yet he ran like the devil, managing to cover the whole court, chasing down every ball, returning it in whatever way he could fashion. Not that he returned that many, because he lost the first set quickly. Nonetheless, he made the mother nervous. The first time Rudy hit that serve we worked out, she turned to me and asked, “He can’t do that, can he?”
There was a tense moment in the second set, when the pink kid hit a ball just out—I saw the mark. Rudy walked up to the line and stood over it in silence, as if afraid of it, but then hollered “Out!” The pink kid puffed up, his mother grabbed my arm, and Rudy turned and stared into the porch at me. From his expression, I couldn’t tell whether he wanted me to confirm his call or was daring me to defy it. Not a line judge, of course I couldn’t say anything. After that call, he just shouted and ignored me. And his game picked up from there.
The other kid did have the strokes, but he didn’t have the head. When he approached the net, Rudy lobbed over him. When he played back, Rudy chopped the ball short, where it skipped and dribbled a few times before rolling to the kid’s feet. And Rudy kept dogging him, finding his weaknesses, until the pink kid’s game fell apart.
1-6, 9-7, 6-0.
The match over, the pink kid ran to his mother, shunning the handshake at the net. Both looked hurt and offended, as if they both had been cheated. Rudy stayed where he was, alone in the middle of the court while matches continued around him. I was ecstatic, yet Rudy looked mad, and bore down with his eyes not on me or the kid or the mother, but on the court itself, fixing himself in the intersection of all those meaningless lines.
Or maybe he was just waiting for things to settle down, because in another moment he broke into a smile and walked off.
It’s not a bad game. There’s not that much people can do together to let off a little steam without someone getting hurt. There’s not that much people can do together at all. And every now and then, after you’ve given up worrying about how well you’re doing, maybe for a brief and passing moment you experience a feeling that is almost marvelous. You’re on the court, but you’re not aware of it, because you’re caught up in the cadence of the fall-bounce-swing of play. The weight and beat of your heart become absorbed into the pressure of the ball against the strings and then are released in its flight over the net, as it plots a trajectory arcing somewhere between the coordinates of elation and despair. You give in and lose yourself to the feeling because you know you are not giving anything up—
We had one player at the courts—Morris Latham. Conqueror of the South in his prime, he even made it to the quarters at Wimbledon. But I don’t care about his record, it was the way he looked, the way he hit the ball. Much as I’ve tried to put all that Southern crap behind me, there has to be something redeeming about this place, because only the South could have produced a Latham. On the court his manner was reserved, almost withdrawn, and he had a stoic look on his face that belied his clean, powerful shots, the smooth, easy grace of his swing. And he did it—hit that way—every single time. But not even that—
His backhand . . . was gorgeous. Pure, simple, seemingly effortless. Yet still not there, but somewhere between the time he snaps his head and racket back together, recoiling in anticipation of the bounce, and the time the ball meshes with the strings, in that fraction of a second that he stands there waiting, accepting, gravely holding at arm’s length a universe of infinite possibilities of all the possible paths, spins, and turns of the ball—it’s there you felt a surge inside as if the world were being drawn to a balance, and watching him you could almost believe that there were such a thing as grace.
Of course there isn’t. Even if there were, you couldn’t teach, much less learn or comprehend it. The essence of grace would lie in its rarity, in its inexpressible beauty.
The world doesn’t turn on my opinion, but I don’t think things are any better. There has been some change, but not much beyond what we have covered by the smile of our guilt, the shadow of our good intentions. We only have to look at the riots last year in LA to see what has been kept under the lid. As for us, I don’t think we can make laws fast enough to keep us from tearing each other apart.
The pink kid is probably out of law school now, climbing the ladder in a big firm. No telling what happened to Rudy. Not much hope for a kid like that.
I think I got him to pin the ball against the throat of the racket with his bad hand, and he tossed by throwing hand, racket, and ball up in the air and letting go.
Jesus, he could serve, and hard!
July 8, 2010 § Leave a comment
Bottom of the third, the home team, our team, the Giants, down 4–1 to the Dodgers, for whom we all bear vestiges of symbolic hatred and dread. Our pitcher looked strong in the first; theirs threw hard yet wild, and a walk and wild pitch capped off by a single gave us the first run of the game. In the second they managed to put together a string of weak hits to tie the score, while we reached their pitcher with a screaming double and a fly ball caught against the fence, driving him back to wildness, another wild pitch and walk that put runners on the corners, the Dodgers only getting out of the inning unscathed with a sharply turned double play. But the top of the third, two outs and bases empty, brought a rent in the fabric of baseball, a run against the odds—a checked-swing dribbler that stayed fair down the line, followed by a bad hop on an infield hit and a bad call on a full count—leaving the bases loaded. Our pitcher, rattled, walked the next batter for one run, then gave up a frank line drive that put two more on the board.
So now we’re up to the plate, and what has to be resolved is whether we can strike their pitcher for serious runs then ours settle down and put the small chaos of the second behind him before the game is out of reach. And it’s early in the season, the first meeting between the two, both teams contenders last year, so what is established today may have consequences later as to who comes out on top.
And more, not just this game, but any game, what the game itself might represent, if baseball represents anything, what it means to the players, how it affects their lives on the field and off, where it leaves them later.
And not just them but those of us watching, how it affects us, what it might mean, this game, the next games, any game, the game itself, what it might establish for us here, now, elsewhere, later, what it says about skill and strength and determination and luck, about coming out on top or losing, about strikes and hits and errors and probabilities and long odds and sure things and misses and near misses and close calls and bad calls and bad breaks and bum deals and screaming blows, about how these might be managed or endured.
And still more, not just these but what lies behind and moves them, what that might mean for those of us who watch or play, if it means anything and anything lies behind them.
There is something about sitting in the stands at a baseball game by oneself, late afternoon on a Monday, that moves one to commentary.